human eye retina

Pig’s skin used to make bioengineered cornea that cures blindness

Image credit: Dreamstime

A bioengineered cornea made of collagen protein from pig’s skin could restore sight to the visually impaired, researchers at Sweden's Linköping University have said.

In a pilot study, the implant restored vision to 20 people with diseased corneas, most of whom were blind prior to receiving the implant.

An estimated 12.7 million people around the world are blind due to damaged or diseased corneas. The cornea is the outermost transparent layer of the eye. Their only way of regaining vision is to receive a transplanted cornea from a human donor, but just one in 70 patients receives a cornea transplant.

The promising results bring hope to those suffering from corneal blindness and low vision by providing a bioengineered implant as an alternative to the transplantation of donated human corneas, which are scarce in countries where the need for them is greatest.

Cornea implant made of collagen protein from pig’s skin.

Image credit: THOR BALKHED/LINKÖPING UNIVERSITY

“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. This gets us around the problem of shortage of donated corneal tissue and access to other treatments for eye diseases,” said Neil Lagali, one of the researchers behind the study.

Researcher Mehrdad Rafat said: “We’ve made significant efforts to ensure that our invention will be widely available and affordable by all and not just by the wealthy. That’s why this technology can be used in all parts of the world.”

The cornea consists mainly of the protein collagen. To create an alternative to human cornea, the researchers used collagen molecules derived from pig skin that were highly purified and produced under strict conditions for human use.

The pig skin used is a by-product of the food industry, making it easy to access and economically advantageous.

In the process of constructing the implant, the researchers stabilised the loose collagen molecules, forming a robust and transparent material that could withstand handling and implantation in the eye.

The primary purpose of the pilot clinical study was to investigate whether the implant was safe to use.

However, the researchers were surprised by what happened with the implant. The cornea’s thickness and curvature were restored to normal. At the group level, the participants’ sight improved as much as it would have after a cornea transplant with donated tissue.

A larger clinical study followed by market approval by regulatory authorities is needed before the implant can be used in healthcare. The researchers also want to study whether the technology can be used to treat more eye diseases, and whether the implant can be adapted to the individual for even greater efficacy.

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