Australian researchers have come up with an innovative new technique of growing corneal cells in the laboratory. The artificially-grown cells can be implanted directly into an eye, as a way of restoring lost or impaired vision in patients with corneal damage. The breakthrough, according to the scientists, could benefit the lives of over 10 million people across the world in need of corneal transplants. Speaking about the research, Berkay Ozcelik, a biomedical engineer and the team’s leader, said:
We believe that our new treatment performs better than a donated cornea, and we hope to eventually use the patient’s own cells, reducing the risk of rejection. Further trials are required but we hope to see the treatment trialled in patients next year.
For those who don’t know, cornea refers to the outermost layer of the human eye. In its healthiest state, the cornea is perfectly transparent and moist. Often times, however, things like disease, ageing and trauma cause the delicate layer to get damaged and swell up, leading to varying degrees of vision loss.
At present, surgically transplanting a healthy cornea is the most efficient way of reversing vision loss due to corneal deterioration. In the United States alone, more than 47,000 corneal transplants were conducted in the year 2014. Around the globe, however, there is a severe shortage of healthy donor corneas. Issues like tissue rejection further add to this shortage. Ozcelik added:
The issue with donor tissue is that the whole process from handling, harvesting cells from the patients, storing and then transplanting them can have detrimental effects on the cells themselves. There is a potential risk for disease transmission and a risk of tissue rejection, since you are transplanting from a foreign body.
For the research, the scientists have developed a versatile film that can be used to grow corneal tissue in the laboratory. So far, the team has successfully conducted animal trials, involving sheep. As pointed out by the researchers, the process starts with the retrieval of a tiny sample of the subject’s corneal cells, which are then carefully cultivated on the specially-designed synthetic film. Once they have proliferated, the regenerated cells are transferred into the subject’s eye, in order to restore vision impairment caused by corneal damage. The team’s leader explained:
The hydrogel film we have developed allows us to grow a layer of corneal cells in the laboratory. Then, we can implant that film on the inner surface of a patient’s cornea, within the eye, via a very small incision.
Measuring only 50 micrometers, which is around the width of a single human hair, the film is designed to automatically disappear in less than 2 months, once the implanted tissue has successfully restored the moisture levels in and around the subject’s cornea. In addition to reducing the risk of tissue rejection, the new technology could eliminate disease transmission that patients of corneal transplants sometimes face. The team was reported saying:
The other advantage of our technique [is] even if you don’t use patients’ own cells, because we can regenerate and increase the number of a donor’s cells in culture, we could use cornea material from one donor for maybe, say, 20 patients.
The researchers are gearing up to begin clinical trials sometime in 2017.
Source: Fresh Science