The technique centers on recreating the cells of the cornea, a transparent layer at the outer boundary of the eye. The inner layer of the cornea consists of corneal endothelial cells, which form a thin layer and are crucial to keep the eye clear, draining extra moisture that could impede light.
A decrease in the number of these cells due to disease, trauma or ageing will lead to a deterioration of vision and, in many cases, blindness.
When faced with a degradation of corneal cells, the only option to preserve vision currently is a cornea transplant. But due to a lack of donors and cell rejection, such surgeries are extremely difficult. Up to a third of transplanted corneas are rejected by the recipient.
Researchers at Melbourne University and the Centre for Eye Research grew a new layer of a test animal’s own corneal endothelial cells on a specially developed synthetic film, and then placed the layer directly onto the cornea. The film itself is thinner than a human hair and dissolves within two months, leaving new corneal cells in its place.
“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,” Berkay Ozcelik, one of the researchers told IBTimes UK.
According to the World Health Organization, corneal blindness is the second most-prevalent cause of blindness on the planet. As of 2010, the condition affected some 4.9 of the estimated 39 million blind people on Earth, about 12 percent.
Ozcelik added that the technique could be used in traditional transplantation operations, as it allows using materials from one donor for many patients.
“This way of using patients’ own cells, amplifying them outside the body and replacing them is a very exciting new area,” ophthalmic surgeon Mark Daniel said to ABC Australia, adding that the film used in experiments could be used in other spheres of medicine.
The film used in the corneal tests has the wide range of applications, Ozcelik suggested, and “could be used for other tissue engineering, such as skin.”
Having successfully tested the method on sheep, researchers are preparing for human trials.