Biomedical Research Team in Spain Working on 3D Printed Corneas to Make Up for Lack of Donors


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While there have been some companies researching how to 3D print viable human corneas, it’s not something we hear about often…as least not as much as we hear about other organs that can be donated, like the liver. As corneas are not technically organs – just the outermost layer of the eye that allows us to see as light passes through to the retina – many people may not realize that you can also donate corneas. There are over 10 million people around the world who are blinded by corneal pathology, but there aren’t nearly enough donors. That’s why the Biomedical Research Institute of La Paz Hospital (IdiPAZ) in Spain is working to 3D print cornea substitutes, using a patient’s own stem cells.

The IdiPAZ team is using cellular bioengineering to manufacture these substitutes, using biological materials and stem cells, which will be 3D printed as an alternative to donated human corneas, so patients can regain vision. According to Dr. María Paz de Miguel, the head of the IdiPAZ team, their project goal is to, in five years’ time, “manufacture the first corneas for clinical use,” and eventually be able to 3D print patient-specific corneas for patients within one week.

In a translated quote from Antena3, Dr. de Miguel said the result of this innovative work will be an “autologous transplant. The stem cells – mesenchymal – come from the fatty tissue of the patient and using their own biological elements there will be no rejection.”

The IdiPAZ project was chosen by the Foundation for Innovation and Prospective Health in Spain (FIPSE), which is part of an international mentoring program developed by MIT through its Idea2 Global program. This international consortium entails a seven-month program, which provides participants with training to help develop their collaborative projects, so that teams can go on from the program and introduce their ideas in the real world. According to IdiPAZ, its 3D printed cornea project is one of 15 FIPSE projects participating in Idea2 Global.

The project description, called ‘Cornal stroma fabrication,’ reads, “Corneal diseases are one of the main causes of vision loss, behind only cataracts, and they affect more than 10 million people worldwide. Ocular trauma and corneal ulceration due to infection are major causes of corneal blindness. Standard treatment for all these conditions consists of a corneal transplant from a human donor, but worldwide demand for donor corneas far exceeds available supply. Our goal is to create a human-like corneal stroma. To achieve this aim, we will explore different methodologies to synthesize a polymeric extracellular matrix of collagen together with 3D printing of mesenchymal stem cells over such matrix imitating the human cornea.”

[Image: IdiPAZ]

In addition to Dr. de Miguel, the IdiPAZ team participants include Verónica Aparicio, Francisco Arnalich-Montiel, Pilar González-Peramato, Anisia Martínez, Diana Martín, Adrián Moratilla, Manuel Nistal, Víctor Paleo, Javier Regadera, and Andrea Santos.

The cornea will detect foreign materials and expel them, which is why synthetic versions won’t work. The team is investigating multiple methods to synthesize a polymeric extracellular collagen matrix that can accurately mimic a human cornea. Stem cells from patients will be used to 3D print the custom corneas, which will be on this matrix. By using tissue engineering to regenerate different layers of the cornea, the researchers will be able to provide people with necessary corneal transplantation.

“Our goal is to manufacture a complete corneal replacement created by cellular bioengineering,” Dr. de Miguel told in a translated quote. “The result will be a cornea completely equal to that of a donor but with biological materials and own patient stem cells.”

An eye after corneal transplant [Image:]

The IdiPAZ team will use 3D printing to add stem cells to a stem cell scaffold, which is built using nanotechnology tools. Dr. de Miguel said that stem cell application has been successfully performed in tests over the years in both synthetic materials and in donor corneas, and explained that the mentoring services provided by FIPSE will “allow us to explore different nanotechnologies to build this scaffold,” using parallel collagen fibers that ensure corneal transparency.

“The doctor will remove the receiving cornea, which is opaque, and replace it with this prosthesis, which will be custom-made for each patient,” explained Dr. de Miguel in a translated quote. “We do not expect rejection because the material to be used is collagen, which is inert, and the patient’s own stem cells.”

The team, which is also working with experts from Harvard on the project, does not know yet exactly how long the cornea manufacturing process will take, but says that they will definitely be able to make the necessary amount of corneas.

Dr. de Miguel said in a translated quote, “What will occupy us most will be to characterize the stem cells of each patient. We believe that within a week the cornea may be fabricated. Our project has the advantage that we will transplant inert material but with stem cells, so that it would become a definitive prosthesis. The most complex part is retina, but there are very strong groups that have been working for many years, it will be the last step and it will be possible.”

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