Lab-Grown Artificial Corneas Could Revolutionise Transplants

Here at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute, we’ve spoken before on the difficulties that must be faced in order to rid the world of corneal blindness. It is one of the major global causes of blindness, with an estimated 4.9 million people around the world affected in both eyes. It is also one of the most easily treatable, via a simple transplant procedure with an extremely high success rate. It is therefore crucial that enough corneas are available for this surgery to be carried out whenever and wherever it is necessary.

However, this is currently not the case, for a number of reasons – the reluctance of people to donate their corneas, increased use of laser eye surgery rendering many corneas unusable for surgery, and huge wastage of donor tissue in some parts of the world. The shortage in suitable, transplantable tissue is one of the most significant barriers to tackling this global issue, meaning we need to address wastage and persuade more people to become donors, but also look to cutting-edge research for alternative approaches. Fortunately, a team at Newcastle University may have discovered the solution.

Artificial Corneas – The breakthrough we’ve been waiting for?

The research team, led by Professor of Tissue Engineering Che Connon, have developed a technique for producing lab-grown artificial corneas that has been described as ‘revolutionary’.

While artificial corneas have been explored in the past, success has varied greatly. For decades, the most common procedure involved the implantation of a keratoprosthesis – a miniature device made from plastic and titanium which was surgically attached to the eye. However, this carried significant risks of infection or rejection by the host, and was limited to patients who had undergone multiple unsuccessful transplant attempts. More recently, scientists have begun to experiment with growing corneas artificially using stem cells, but none have seen widespread use or success.

The Newcastle team’s artificial corneas are the first to be grown using a curved, rather than flat, surface. This means that the cells are able to form in a manner more reminiscent of the actual human eye – as a result they are stronger, more transparent and contain larger amounts of aligned collagen than existing artificial corneas. Despite their complexity, they take only a few months to grow.

What does this mean for the fight against corneal blindness?

The university has claimed that its breakthrough would revolutionise the growing of artificial tissue around the world, and help to tackle the shortfall in donated human corneal tissue. If their predictions of success prove to be correct, their work will become the latest in a line of recent advances – earlier this year researchers from European universities began exploring the use of 3D printing to create synthetic tissues, while the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute’s partners at the LV Prasad Eye Institute have been developing their own lab-grown tissues.

These major breakthroughs, coming in such rapid succession, suggests that the tide may finally be turning in the fight against corneal blindness. For our founder Tej Kohli, news of major developments such as these is evidence that his own personal mission to control corneal blindness by 2030 could well be within reach.