Lab-Grown Corneas Could Help Fight Blindness

The cornea is the transparent layer at the front of the eye, and is involved in focusing vision. Anemone/Shutterstock

Scientists have successfully regenerated cornea cells in a petri dish, and believe that their technique could soon be used as a safer and more effective substitute to corneal transplants for those suffering from impaired vision. The cells have so far only been inserted into the eyes of sheep, though the researchers believe similar results could soon be seen in humans.

Corneal endothelial cells (CECs) are responsible for maintaining the transparency of the cornea, by ejecting excess liquid and preventing it from becoming swollen. However, as these cells deteriorate with age, vision can begin to decline, ultimately leading to blindness.

At present, the only way to get around this problem is by transplanting CECs from another person, although as with all transplants, there is a risk that the recipient’s body will reject the foreign tissue. A preferable solution is therefore to find a way to regenerate a patient’s own CECs.

Reporting their work in the journal Advanced Healthcare Material, the study authors reveal how they developed ultra-thin polyethylene hydrofilms, upon which they were able to coax sheep CECs to proliferate. Within a week, these had formed into a continuous layer, displaying all the same physical properties as groups of CECs in actual sheep.

These films were then implanted back into the cornea of the sheep from which the CECs came, restoring optical transparency to above 98 percent. The permeability of these films to glucose was also found to be almost identical to that of the native cornea, indicating that they can be used to satisfy natural diffusion needs.

Furthermore, tests revealed a complete lack of inflammation or toxicity 28 days after the films were implanted into the sheep’s eyes, indicating that they are fully tolerated by the body.

Study co-author Berkay Ozcelik told IBTimes UK that “our ultimate aim is to use patients' own cells to regenerate them on the hydrogel films we have developed, and to implant them directly in the patient's cornea. Since it's their own cells we are using, there is no risk of disease transmission or tissue rejection.”


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