World’s first 3D-printed cornea made from algae and human stem cells

The human eye is a remarkably sophisticated organ and like the lens to a camera, it’s the cornea that focuses the flood of photons into a perceptible image. But for an estimated 15 million people around the world, eye disease and trauma make surgery the only path to clear vision.

In the next few years, artificial corneas may become more accessible thanks to new research out of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. There, researchers mixed stem cells from the cornea of a healthy donor with collagen and algae molecules to create a bio-ink, which they 3D-printed into an artificial cornea. The research is currently just a proof-of-concept but lays the groundwork for future techniques to create low-cost, easy-to-produce bionic eyes.

There were three features required for the bio-ink, according to Che Connon, a professor of tissue engineering at Newcastle.

“One, it needed to be able to keep a stem cell population alive,” he told Digital Trends. “It needed to be extrudable, or thin enough to push through a thin gauge needle to allow for bio-printing. And the material needed to be stiff enough such that it holds it shape, allowing to build up a 3D cornea.”

Connon and his colleagues previously managed to keep stem cells alive for weeks at room temperature in a similar bio-ink. This recent study advanced that research by using a ready-made bio-ink packed with stem cells, without having to wait for the cells to grow separately. The team also demonstrated that they could tailor their 3D-printed cornea to match the unique dimensions of a patient’s eye by taking an image of the cornea and rendering it as a 3D model.

It will take some years still until 3D-printed corneas make it to the market. But, if and when that does happen, the research will prove most beneficial for developing regions where cases of corneal damage is highest and supply of donor corneas are most limited.

“There’s a lack of donor cornea, especially in the less developed world,” Connon said. “They don’t have good eye banks there like they do in the more developed world. That means many people don’t have access to corneal transplantation. And in these less developed nations, there are more instances of burns and infections that can cause corneal blindness.”

A paper detailing the research was published this week in the journal Experimental Eye Research.

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