The cornea, the outermost layer of the eye, plays a vital role in focusing, the study authors explained. Taking less than 10 minutes to print, this technique could be used to provide an unlimited supply of corneas to the 10 million people worldwide requiring surgery to prevent corneal blindness. The innovative thing about them, however, is the material used for 3D printing, a special "bio-ink" created from stem cells. Using a low-priced bio-printer, the bio-ink was extruded in concentric circles to create a shape that mimics the human cornea, a process that took just 10 minutes.
"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", said researcher Che Connon. It also helps that the team had already figured out how to keep stem cells alive for a week at room temperature.
By scanning the patient's eye, the scientists can 3D print a cornea that's the same size and shape of their own eye.
If their methods gain medical approval, 3D-printed corneas could greatly benefit the millions of people in need of corneal transplants and those suffering from vision impairment due to corneal injury.
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They used a mix of human corneal stromal (stem) cells harvested from donated healthy corneas, alginate, and collagen to create a firm but printable bio-ink. "That's partly due to the increasing use of refractive [laser eye] surgery and eyes that have undergone refractive surgery now can not be used for transplantation".
Because the methodology relies on corneal cells instead of an entire cornea, one donor can help multiple patients.
3D printers are quite commonplace now, with a plastic material typically squeezed out of a nozzle to slowly build up a shape in layers. Currently, patients with damaged corneas can undergo transplants in serious cases, but this necessitates a donor-of which there is a significant shortage. Not only did this bio-ink have to be thin but it also had to be firm enough to be able to hold its shape as a 3D structure.
The researchers point out it's likely to be years before this can be perfected and scaled up: as with other attempts to grow human corneas in the lab we've seen in recent years, progress has to be steady and cautious.
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