The cornea is ‘the windshield through which you see the world.’ It is composed of collagen and different layers of transparent cells on the outermost part of the eye. Sometimes things can happen to the cornea, it can become badly scarred, thinned out or cloudy due to disorders of the cornea or due to injury. This can dramatically reduce your vision or view through that once crystal clear smooth ‘windshield’ and it is in these cases that a corneal transplant is needed.
A corneal transplant is usually performed when the cornea is so scarred that even speciality contact lenses can not yield adequate vision, or if the patient’s cornea is so thinned out that a hole or perforation in the cornea, a very dangerous predicament, is threatening to develop. Usually corneal transplant surgeries entail removing the patient’s own cornea and surgically replacing it with that of an organ donor. In this process, there was a risk that the patient’s body would reject the organ donor’s tissue with a rejection rate of 35% within 5 years (source). The recipient’s body would see the donor’s cornea as a foreign material and therefore, it would mount an immune response or attack against it. In standard corneal transplant surgeries, immunosuppressive medications must be taken for months after the surgery to help prevent this attack. It has been shown that patients who received a transplant with a biosyntetic cornea, “did not experience any rejection reaction or require long-term immune suppression (medication), which are serious side effects associated with the use of human donor tissue.” (source 1) This is according to a new study and two year on-going clinical trial organized by Dr. May Griffith (Ottawa, Canada) and Dr. Per Fagerholm (Sweden).
Dr. May Griffith and her colleagues at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute have been making biosynthetic corneas in their lab for about ten years now. She teamed up with Dr. Per Fagerholm in Sweden to try out the lab-created corneas in ten patients. They saw that over the course of two years the patient’s own new cells and nerves had grown into the implant. Tear production also returned to normal in patients who had the biosynthetic corneal transplants as well as corneal sensitivity (ability to sense touch). Over the two years, vision improved in six of the patients with glasses, two of the patients stayed the same. Contact lenses that were once intolerable, patients were now able to wear and their vision improved to that of patients who had standard corneal implants. (source 2) Also, due to the widespread shortage of available donor corneas, the waiting list for corneal transplants can be long (especially in countries other than the United States). That is what makes this breakthrough in biosynthetic or lab-created corneas so great! No donors needed!
These biosynthetic transplants were not full thickness corneal transplants as the endothelial cells of the cornea were not transplanted but Dr. Griffith says she is already working on that in order to extend the biosynthetic corneal treatment method to an even a wider range of corneal problems. There is hope for the future and science is leading the way to a clearer, brighter tomorrow worldwide. Isn’t Science grand?