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Are 3D Printed Corneas the Future of Ocular Medicine?

A new technology has the potential to create biocompatible cornea grafts, customised towards patient’s individual needs. Is this the solution we’ve all been waiting for? Here, the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute explore what this new development means for the future of ocular medicine.

Throughout the word, an estimated 4.9 billion people suffer from corneal blindness in both eyes, with a transplant the only known cure. Donations are easy to carry out, have an extremely high success rate, and are encouraged by many major religions. Despite this, efforts to tackle corneal blindness face several obstacles – most notably a commonly held squeamishness that prevents people from becoming donors. Our founder Tej Kohli has also drawn attention to the issue of donor cornea wastage, which regularly sees valuable organs lost rather than used for transplants or medical research.

However, the fight against corneal blindness could be on the verge of being transformed, with the advent of new 3D printing technology.

Researchers from the University of Antwerp and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium have banded together to explore 3D printing technology’s potential for tissue engineering. Although the research is still at an early stage, it is hoped that stem cell technology and 3D printing can be combined to print a synthetic, biomimetic cornea graft, ready to be used in transplants.

The new customised grafts could be an answer not only to cornea donation shortages, but also to donor incompatibility. Research by the Collaborative Corneal Transplant Studies has shown that transplants are most likely to succeed when donors and recipients are matched by blood type. The 3D printed grafts would be derived from the patient’s own cells, making them biocompatible and potentially entirely eliminating the risk of the tissue being rejected.

Although further development is needed, the project’s progress so far has made the researchers extremely hopeful about the future of their ground-breaking cornea grafts.

The implications for these 3D printed corneas would be enormous, with the potential to solve the shortfall of eye-donors and help restore the sight of countless people worldwide. It comes at an exciting time in the field of ocular medicine, as several ground-breaking new developments have begun to emerge. Recently the TKCI brought you news of the pioneering work of our partners the LV Prasad Institute, in developing miniature, eye-like organs that can already be used to tackle certain forms of corneal blindness.

Major developments such as these may be in their early stages, but they demonstrate the huge strides that are being taken to transform our treatment of preventable blindness. Through the right combination of innovation, support and perseverance, these new advances in medical science could set us on the path to fulfilling Tej Kohli’s mission of controlling an reducing preventable corneal blindness by 2030.