Bioengineered cornea restores sight to the blind and visually impaired

Researchers and entrepreneurs have developed an implant made from collagen protein from pigskin, which resembles the human cornea. In a pilot study, the implant restored the sight of 20 people with diseased corneas, most of whom were blind before receiving the implant. The promising results bring hope to those suffering from corneal blindness and low vision by providing a bioengineered implant as an alternative to transplanting donated human corneas, which are in short supply in countries where the need is greatest.

The researchers also developed a new, minimally invasive method to treat keratoconus, a disease in which the cornea becomes so thin that it can lead to blindness. Today, the cornea of ​​a patient with advanced-stage keratoconus is surgically removed and replaced with a donated cornea, which is stitched together using surgical sutures. This type of surgery is invasive and only done in larger hospitals.

less invasive method

“A less invasive method could be used in more hospitals, thus helping more people. With our method, the surgeon does not need to remove the patient’s own tissue. Instead, a small incision is made, through which the implant is inserted into the existing cornea,” said Neil Lagali, leader of the research group that developed this surgical method.

Stitches are not required with this new surgical method. The corneal incision can be made with high precision thanks to an advanced laser, but also, when necessary, by hand with simple surgical instruments. The method was first tested in pigs and turned out to be simpler and potentially safer than a conventional corneal transplant.

The surgical method and implants have been used by surgeons in Iran and India, two countries where many people suffer from corneal blindness and low vision and there is a significant lack of donated corneas and treatment options. Twenty people who were blind or about to lose their sight due to advanced keratoconus participated in the pilot clinical study and received the implantation of the biomaterial. The operations were complication-free; the tissue healed quickly; and an eight-week treatment with immunosuppressive eye drops was sufficient to prevent implant rejection. With conventional corneal transplants, the drug must be taken for several years. Patients were followed for two years and no complications were observed during this period.

surprising results

The primary objective of the pilot clinical study was to investigate whether the implant was safe to use. However, the researchers were surprised by what happened to the implant. Corneal thickness and curvature were restored to normal. At the group level, participants’ vision improved as much as after a corneal transplant with donated tissue. Before the operation, 14 of the 20 participants were blind. After two years, none of them were blind anymore. Three of the Indian participants who were blind before the study had perfect vision (20/20) after the operation.

A larger clinical trial followed by market approval by regulatory authorities is required before the implant can be used in healthcare. The researchers also want to study whether the technology can be used to treat more eye conditions and whether the implant can be tailored to the individual for even greater effectiveness.

About Abhishek Pratap

Food maven. Unapologetic travel fanatic. MCU's fan. Infuriatingly humble creator. Award-winning pop culture ninja.

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