Newcastle researchers have 3D printed the first human corneas using a ‘bio-ink’ made out of stem cells.

For the first time in history, scientists have 3D printed human corneas, Science Daily reports. This incredible feat of engineering was achieved by researchers at Newcastle University in the U.K., who hope that their work can help relieve the serious shortage of corneas available for transplant.

According to Newcastle University, some 15 million people all over the world are in need of a cornea transplant, either to prevent disease-induced corneal blindness or because they have lost their vision due to scarring of the cornea as a result of burns, lacerations, or disease.

With the help of 3D bioprinting, researchers could “ensure an unlimited supply of corneas,” states the university.

In a study published today in the journal Experimental Eye Research, the Newcastle team points out that the artificial corneas were made using a normal 3D bio-printer. The innovative thing about them, however, is the material used for 3D printing, a special “bio-ink” created from stem cells.

The paper, which is also available online on Europe PMC, reveals that the “bio-ink” is actually a solution made of collagen and alginate, which the Financial Times notes is a gel derived from seaweed. To this hydrogel mixture, the researchers added human corneal stromal cells (stem cells) taken from a healthy donor cornea.

The unique qualities of the “bio-ink” allowed the 3D printer to create a scaffold shaped like a human cornea in under six minutes, on which the stem cells then grow to produce the tissue needed for transplant.

Study co-author Che Connon, a professor of tissue engineering at the university, says that the greatest advantage of the “bio-ink” is that it maintains the stem cells alive throughout the whole 3D printing process.

“Our unique gel — a combination of alginate and collagen — keeps the stem cells alive whilst producing a material which is stiff enough to hold its shape but soft enough to be squeezed out the nozzle of a 3D printer.”

As Connon explains, the team had previously worked on a project in which they devised a similar hydrogel that managed to keep cells alive at room temperature for several weeks.

“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,” Connon points out.

The amazing thing about the 3D-printed human corneas is that they can be custom made, notes the university. The artificial corneas can be created to match someone’s exact size and shape specifications by simply scanning the patient’s eye.

Although these 3D-printed corneas won’t be ready for use in transplants for another few years and need “to undergo further testing,” Connon pointed out they are nevertheless an immense breakthrough.

“We have shown is that it is feasible to print corneas using coordinates taken from a patient eye and that this approach has potential to combat the worldwide shortage,” said Connon.
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