Scientists have developed an eye implant made of collagen protein from pig’s skin, which resembles the human cornea. Amazingly, the implant can restore vision to the blind and visually impaired, raising hopes for millions of people affected by these conditions worldwide.
The science and other stuff to know
Corneal blindness affects more than 12.7 million people worldwide, according to statistics. While this condition is treatable through transplants, there’s currently just one cornea available (donated after one’s death) for every 70 patients. This, therefore, creates an urgent need for innovative cornea treatments.
In an effort to solve the global need for low-cost, widely available alternative treatment for corneal blindness, a team of scientists at LinkoCare Life Sciences and Linköping University has developed an eye implant that can restore sight.
To create the implant, the team dissolved pig tissue to form a purified collagen solution. They then used it to engineer a hydrogel that mimics the human cornea. Afterward, they conducted a pilot trial of 20 people who were either blind or close to losing their sight from advanced keratoconus.
“We insert our material into this pocket to thicken the cornea and to reshape it so that it can restore the cornea’s function,” Neil Lagali, a professor at the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences at Linköping University and one of the researchers behind the study, said in a statement.
In their findings published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, 14 patients (70 percent of participants) who had been completely blind before the implant were completely cured after the treatment. What’s more, three volunteers had even gained perfect (20/20) vision.
“We were surprised with the degree of vision improvement,” said Lagali.
Unlike human corneas, which must be transplanted within two weeks, bioengineered eye implants can be stored for up to two years. Additionally, no stitches are needed with this new implant, thanks to its advanced laser technology.
While not all patients experienced the same degree of improvement, Marian Macsai, a clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of Chicago who wasn’t involved in the study, said the new implant could be a game changer for those with keratoconus. This condition affects approximately 50 to 200 of every 100,000 people worldwide, according to the Cornea Research Foundation of America.
“The concept that we could have bioengineered corneas would be revolutionary,” Macsai told NBC News. “It would potentially eliminate the risk of rejection and potentially make corneas available to patients worldwide.”
While the eye implant proved effective at treating keratoconus, the study team believes with additional research, it could also treat other corneal conditions, including scarring from infections or trauma and corneal dystrophies.
Lagali and his team now hope to run a larger clinical trial of at least 100 patients in Europe and the U.S. They also plan to kickstart the regulatory process required for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to eventually approve the implant.