Gift of Sight

Scientists in Australia have invented a method to grow cornea cells, and this technique could potentially replace the current method of transplanting donated corneas.

Corneas are the jelly-like layers which contain the majority's of the eye's focusing power. These cells are vital in maintaining eyesight, although people commonly lose them due to age, illness, or in case of a major trauma. Corneal blindness is considered by the World Health Organization as the fourth most common cause of blindness around the world after cataract, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration.

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When faced with the natural deterioration of corneal cells, there’s only one way—so far—to preserve vision: cornea transplant. However, corneal surgeries tend to be extremely difficult due to lack of donors and cell rejection—at least one-third of transplanted corneas are rejected by the recipients.

Part Sci-Fi

In Australia, researchers at Melbourne University and the Centre for Eye Research have developed a new way to replace damaged cornea cells with new ones that were grown in a lab.

For the research, the team tried growing a new layer of an animal’s corneal endothelial cells on a specially developed synthetic film similar to a plastic wrap, which they then implanted directly onto the animal’s cornea. The film, which is thinner than a human hair, dissolves in two months but will leave new corneal cells in its place. The team is now gearing up for human trials.

Scientist Berkay Ozcelik, who developed the film, told ABC News in an interview, “We believe that our new treatment is better than a donated cornea and we eventually hope to use the patient’s own cells, reducing the risk of rejection.”

The method—which partly screams science fiction—is less of a transplant and more of a tool that our eyes can use to naturally rebuild. And no, it won't probably give you bionic eyes. In Ozcelik’s words, the technique's “way of using patients own cells, amplifying them outside the body and replacing them is a very exciting new area.”

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