The Blind And The Visually Impaired May Finally Regain Their Sight With The Help Of A Bioengineered Cornea
The gift of sight should be nurtured. People oftentimes take this for granted. They don’t really think about the comfort of being able to see things until they meet someone who wasn’t fortunate enough to be given that gift.
However, there is hope for the visually impaired. They will finally be able to see the world the way it was meant to be seen. They may now see the sun rise, gasp when a rainbow appears after the rain, and enjoy the world at dusk.
Researchers and entrepreneurs have come together to develope an implant made of collagen protein from pig’s skin. This invention closely resembles the human cornea and during its testing phase, it was able to restore vision for 20 of its recipients.
Before the patients received the implant, many had already been blind because of diseased corneas. The trial gave them promising results. This means that those who have suffered from corneal blindness and low vision can now have access to bioengineered implant as an alternative. They can opt for this instead of going for transplantation of donated human corneas, and that’s because this isn’t such a common option in several countries.
“The results show that it is possible to develop a biomaterial that meets all the criteria for being used as human implants, which can be mass-produced and stored up to two years and thereby reach even more people with vision problems,” said Neil Lagali. He is a professor at the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences at LiU and he’s also one of the researchers in the study.
There are around 12.7 million people around the world who suffer from blindness because of corneal disease or damage. This is the outermost transparent layer of the eye. The only way they can get their vision back is to get a transplanted cornea from a human donor. Unfortunately, only one in 70 patients are lucky enough to get a cornea transplant. As for those in need of such transplants, they reside in either low and middle-income countries. This means that they have really limited access to this type of technology.
“Safety and effectiveness of the bioengineered implants have been the core of our work”, said Mehrdad Rafat. He is the researcher and entrepreneur behind the design and development of the implants. He is also an adjunct associate professor (senior lecturer) at LiU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and founder and CEO of the company LinkoCare Life Sciences AB. The company is the manufacturer behind the bioengineered corneas involved in this study.
“We’ve made significant efforts to ensure that our invention will be widely available and affordable by not just by the wealthy,” he said.
As for the cornea itself, majority of it is made up of protein collagen. In able to provide those in need with an alternative to human cornea, the researchers made use of collagen molecules that they got from pig skin. Before they manufactured it, they had to highly purify and produce the cornea under strict conditions, considering that this will go to humans. The pig skin that they used is a byproduct of the food industry. This means that the materials are easy to gain and are economically profitable.
In making the actual implant, the researchers had to stabilize the loose collagen molecules that form a strong and transparent material. This needed to be able to withstand handling and implantation. It also must be noted that the usual donated corneas needed to be used within two weeks, the bioengineered corneas can be stored for as long as two years.
In the process, the researchers were also able to develop a new, minimally invasive method for keratoconus treatment. This is a disease where the cornea becomes so thin that it can bring about blindness. Right now, a keratoconus patient’s cornea at advanced stage can be removed via surgery and then replaced by one that has been donated. This is then sewn via sutures to stabilize it and put it in its proper place. Because this surgery requires so much as is considered to be invasive, these are often done at larger university hospitals.
“A less invasive method could be used in more hospitals, thereby helping more people. With our method, the surgeon doesn’t need to remove the patient’s own tissue. Instead, a small incision is made, through which the implant is inserted into the existing cornea,” said Neil Lagali. He has led the research group that has developed this method of surgery.
As for the new method, there is no need for stitches. The incision done in the cornea can be done extremely precisely with the help of advanced laser technology. When the use of hand is needed, this can be completed with simple surgical instruments. They were able to develop the latest method by testing it first on pigs. This was when they discovered that it was simpler, easier, and potentially even safer than the conventional methods they have been used to doing.