They’re not ready for human eyes yet, but one day these artificial corneas might help people see…
Scientists have 3D printed the thin protective film over the eye, called the cornea, using human cells — and it’s the most advanced version of an artificial cornea yet. Should the technology improve, it could help millions of people see again.
It was tricky to find the right recipe for an ink that’s thin enough to squirt through a 3D printer’s nozzle, says Che Connon, a tissue engineer at Newcastle University who was one of the creators of the artificial cornea. This bio-ink didn’t just have to be thin — it also had to be stiff enough that it could hold its shape as a 3D structure. To get the right consistency, the researchers added a jelly-like goo called alginate and stem cells extracted from donor corneas, along with some ropy proteins called collagen.
The cornea is the first lens light passes through before eventually hitting the retina at the back of the eye. Damage to the cornea — from injury or infection — can distort vision, or even lead to blindness. Right now, the damaged corneas are replaced with healthy ones from deceased donors, but there aren’t enough donated corneas to go around. Nearly 5 million people around the world are blind because infection scarred their corneas, according to the World Health Organization.