Human corneas have successfully been 3D printed for the first time by scientists at Newcastle University in England.
By mixing stem cells from a healthy donor cornea with alginate, a gel derived from seaweed, and collagen, researchers managed to create a "bio-ink" solution that can be printed.
This bio-ink then would be successfully expelled out of the printer in concentric circles in the shape of a cornea in less than 10 minutes, according to a paper published in Experimental Eye Research.
"Our unique bio-gel -- a combination of alginate and collagen -- keeps the stem cells alive while producing a material which is stiff enough to hold its shape but soft enough to be squeezed out the nozzle of a 3D printer," said lead researcher Che Connon in a press release.Connon's team also showed it is possible to create a cornea that matches a patient's unique specifications.
By taking the dimensions of the patient's actual cornea with scans, scientists can use the data to print a cornea that matches its size and shape.
The 3D printed corneas will now have to undergo further testing but it is hoped the technique could be in regular use within five years.
Professor Connon said the research could help with the worldwide shortage of corneas for transplant.
Currently around 10 million people worldwide each year require surgery to prevent corneal blindness, and another five million already suffer total blindness from corneal scarring caused by burns, lacerations, abrasion or disease.