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Scientists Can Now Grow And Implant Artificial Corneas

The technology could lead to rejection-free cornea implants in humans.

[Photo: vosmanius/iStock]

Scientists have successfully grown artificial corneas and transplanted them into living eyes. The trials took place in animals, but the same technology could lead to rejection-free cornea implants in humans.

The cornea is the transparent layer that covers the front of your eye and is responsible in large part for the focusing of the eye. It is also the part that is cut when you have corrective vision surgery. Damage can be done by injury, and illness and age can both cause the cornea to cloud.

Currently, when somebody requires a cornea implant, they need a human donor. That limits supply and also causes compatibility issues. Like any transplant, the host can reject a cornea, and in the case of the eye, the procedure can damage the cornea itself.

[Photo: Flickr user Sam Bald]

Researchers at the University of Melbourne, Australia, have managed to grow an artificial cornea by growing corneal cells on a hydrogel film. It’s like a kind of living contact lens. "We believe that our new treatment performs better than a donated cornea," said lead researcher Berkay Ozcelik in a press release, "and we hope to eventually use the patient’s own cells, reducing the risk of rejection."

These cells are the corneal endothelial cells, which form a layer that "pumps" water away from the cornea, allowing fresh tears to flow in. This keeps the eye hydrated. When somebody dies and these cells quit working, our eyes cloud over.

Once the film has been colonized with cells, it is implanted through an incision, and left to settle in. After two months, the hydrogel biodegrades in the body, leaving just the new layer of cells.

Human trials could begin next year, and if successful, the implants could solve both the global cornea shortage, and reduce demand for transplants: when an implant is rejected, another cornea needs to be found, and the patient has to have another operation. This method could make things better for everyone.

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