Liv Francis-Pape reports on Newcastle University’s breakthough 3D printing of corneas.

Written by Liv Francis-Pape
Last updated
Images by Eric Wiessner

3D printers are at the cutting edge of modern-day medicine, whether it be for livers, for hearts or for eyes. Earlier this month, scientists at the University of Newcastle hit a ground-breaking feat with the first 3D printing of corneas.

Viewed as both windows to the soul or the symbol for truth in King Lear, eyes are literally as well as metaphorically integral to our anatomy. Unfortunately, however, there is currently a worldwide shortage of eye donors. Many of us may tick a box on a donor card but a near 10 million people need surgery to prevent complete blindness caused by diseases such as trachoma or keratoconus.

A near 10 million people need surgery to prevent complete blindness

Sadly, corneas don’t grow on surgeon’s trees and a near 5 million people have been cast into total blindness due to corneal scarring. This new and seemingly futuristic breakthrough could gift sight to the innumerable sufferers and provide a limitless reserve of corneas.

A report published in Experimental Eye Research explains how corneal stem cells were mixed with alginate, a safe moulding material taken from seaweed, and collagen to create a ‘bio-ink’ – this combination of cells and shaping agents allow for a replicable ‘ink’. These copies can then be formed into concentric circles to resemble a real human cornea.

When input into the 3D printer, it then takes a mere ten minutes to print. Not only time is saved, but 3D printing is low-cost and highly efficient. Finally, these stem cells are shown to a culture to grow. Moreover, these stem cells can be bred to match a specific patient by scanning the person’s eyes, according to Abigail Isaacson from the Institute of Genetic Medicine within Newcastle University. Despite actual transplant trials being several years away, these scientists have proven that, according to Che Connon, Professor of Tissue Engineering at the University of Newcastle, they have the ‘potential to combat the worldwide shortage’.

We are delighted at the success...a corneal transplant can give someone back the gift of sight

Medical terminology and bio-inks aside, this has a real chance of changing millions of people’s lives – Dr Neil Ebenezer, director of research, policy and innovation at Fight for Sight, a charity for Eye Research, stated how ‘we are delighted at the success…a corneal transplant can give someone back the gift of sight’.