New 3D-Printed Corneas Could Save Your Eyes

3D printing is no longer just for making tools on Mars, creating food out of thin air, or building cheap housing parts. By now, you’ve probably heard of the huge impact that the device can have on the world of medicine and science. 3D printing can be used to create bionic body parts, with everything from arms to legs to ears being made with 3D printers in order to help those who have lost limbs.

Well, the newest 3D printing application has arrived, and it involves a body part you may not have thought was possible to replace with a 3D-printed version. Scientists have discovered how to print corneas on 3D printers, and it could save thousands of people.

The cornea is the thin outer layer of the eye and it plays a huge role in controlling and focusing the entry of light into the eye. Over 5 million people worldwide suffer from complete blindness due to damage, burns, or disease of their corneas. Another 10 million people are waiting for surgery to prevent corneal blindness. Although people can donate their corneas after they die, the demand currently outweighs the supply. 3D-printed corneas could be the solution.

Scientists at Newcastle University in the UK printed out layers of “bio-ink,” building them up in concentric circles to form a cornea-shaped scaffolding. Stem cells are then added and left to grow. This creates a cornea ready for transplantation.

“Many teams across the world have been chasing the ideal bio-ink to make this process feasible,” said lead author Che Connon, Professor of Tissue Engineering at Newcastle University. “Our unique gel – a combination of alginate and collagen – keeps the stem cells alive whilst producing a material which is stiff enough to hold its shape but soft enough to be squeezed out the nozzle of a 3D printer. This builds upon our previous work in which we kept cells alive for weeks at room temperature within a similar hydrogel. Now we have a ready to use bio-ink containing stem cells allowing users to start printing tissues without having to worry about growing the cells separately.”

While the corneas still need to go through extensive testing and may not be ready for implantation for several more years, the scientists who conducted the research have confidence that this could combat the worldwide shortage.