Fake eyeballs in a box

3D-printed prosthetic eye fitted at Moorfields Eye Hospital

Image credit: Dreamstime

A man from Hackney, East London, will be the first person in the world to have a 3D-printed prosthetic eye, following a procedure performed at Moorfields Eye Hospital this week.

Conventionally, patients requiring an eye prosthesis receive a painted acrylic eye. During a two-hour session, the eye socket is moulded to create a comfortable prosthetic; this invasive procedure can be so difficult that it can require a general anaesthetic when the patient is a child. The eye is then painted. This process takes six weeks.

The 3D-printed eye is more realistic, having clearer definition and “real depth” to the pupil. For conventional acrylic eyes, the iris is hand-painted onto a black disc embedded in the prosthesis, meaning that light cannot pass the full depth of the eye, while light can interact more naturally with the 3D-printed prosthesis.

However, a 3D-printed prosthetic is not only more realistic but also reduces the manufacturing process to two to three weeks. The initial appointment to measure the eye socket – which uses only a non-invasive scan rather than taking a mould – takes just half an hour, Moorfields Eye Hospital said. The project uses software from Ocupeye and Fraunhofer and the prosthetic was printed through Germany’s Fit AG.

The first 3D-printed prosthetic eye was for Steve Varze, an engineer in his 40s, who commented that he always felt self-conscious about his prosthetic eye.

“I’ve needed a prosthetic since I was 20, and I’ve always felt self-conscious about it. When I leave my home, I often take a second glance in the mirror, and I’ve not liked what I’ve seen,” he said. “This new eye looks fantastic and, being based on 3D digital printing technology, it’s only going to be better and better.”

Varze first tried his new eye on 11 November, alongside a conventional acrylic prosthetic.

Professor Mandeep Sagoo, a consultant ophthalmologist at the specialist eye hospital, said staff were “excited” at the potential offered by 3D-printed eye prostheses as a clinical trial for the approach begins at Moorfields.

“We hope the forthcoming clinical trial will provide us with robust evidence about the value of this new technology, showing what a difference it makes for patients. It clearly has the potential to reduce waiting lists.”

The project was supported by the National Institute for Health Research Moorfields Biomedical Research Centre and by Moorfields Eye Charity through the Drayson Foundation.

Advances in additive manufacturing which allow greater control, precision, and complexity in the structures printed are presenting exciting opportunities to apply the technology to surgery and medicine. For instance, in 2018, a titanium skull plate was printed to fit a dog following an operation to remove a large tumour on her head and showed promise for similar procedures in human cancer patients. Earlier this year, scientists at the University of Bath printed metal implants for patients undergoing knee surgery, fitting the implants perfectly to their bodies.

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