Many people around the world suffer from severely limited eyesight due to corneal damage.The cornea is the eye’s outermost layer. It needs to stay moist and transparent, but ageing, disease or trauma can all result in vision deterioration.
Fortunately, a group of scientists in Australia have developed a special technique for growing corneal cells on a thin layer of film in the lab. Usually corneal tissue will be implanted right into the eye to restore lost vision and these cells are no different.
Biomedical engineer Berkay Ozcelik who’s been leading the research at University of Melbourne, believes 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.”
So far, the new method has already been successfully demonstrated in animal trials, further increasing the potential to dramatically gaining access to corneal transplants.
Corneal transplants are carried out in thousands of cases helping some 47.000 people in the US in 2014 alone. Sadly, there’s a significant shortage of donor corneas to satisfy global demand at all. The health issues associated with a donor transplant can’t be ignored either, often resulting complications that require even steroids to fight rejections.
Ozcelik elaborates on the risks saying:
“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.”
To get around these severe problems, the all new technique involves taking a sample of the subject’s corneal cells, cultivating them on the synthetic film, and then returning them in greater numbers to the eye. Doing it this way, the regenerated cells restore moistness-pumping functions that keep the cornea healthy and clear.
In a recent press release Berkay Ozcelik and his team stated that:
“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.”
Once implanted the hydrogel film, which is just a mere 50 micrometres thick, restores the needed healthy water flowing between the cornea and the eye’s interior. The hydrogel eventually degrades and ultimately disappears after two months showing only minimal potential for inflammation or other adverse issues. A great secondary benefit of the film implant could most likely be the cultivating of healthy corneal cells for use in multiple recipients.
“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,” Ozcelik told International Business Times.
Corneal cells seem to be somewhat universal in nature and the patients are not ‘limited’ to humans alone, as researchers in Japan and the UK already implanted some cells into the eyes of rabbits and successfully restored vision.
As literally only seeing is believing Ozcelik hopes now lie in next year’s trails, but the potential to heal a century old ailment surely seems well-founded.