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Explained: Corneas bioengineered from pig collagen can restore sight, study finds

For the first time, researchers in Sweden have been able to create a successful alternative — bioengineered cornea implants made of collagen derived from pig skin. The implant was used to successfully restore the vision of 20 people in India and Iran.

New surgical method was used by the researchers on study subjects in India and Iran, where there is a scarcity of donated corneas. (Getty Images)

Damage to the cornea — the clear, outermost layer of the eye — is one of the leading causes of blindness across the world, leaving approximately 12.7 million people blind, and particularly affecting those in poorer countries where there is a scarcity of donated human corneas.

For the first time, researchers in Sweden have been able to create a successful alternative — bioengineered cornea implants made of collagen derived from pig skin. The implant was used to successfully restore the vision of 20 people in India and Iran, most of whom were blind due to keratoconus, a disease that leads to thinning of the cornea. The findings were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology on August 11.

Researchers claim that there is a severe shortage of corneas, with only one available for 70 patients. Logistical and storage difficulties, along  with expensive surgical equipment, further burden those living in low- and middle-income countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

As a substitute for human corneas, the researchers utilised medical-grade collagen derived from pig skin, a byproduct of the food industry that is already used in medical devices for glaucoma surgery. This is not only cheaper and easier to access than donated corneas, but requires a less invasive procedure and can be stored for a significantly longer period — up to two years, the study notes.

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The researchers developed a minimally invasive method without the use of stitches, where a small incision is made in the patient’s eye, and the implant is inserted over the existing cornea. This can be done with high-precision lasers or by using readily available surgical instruments.

This new method was used by surgeons in India and Iran, where there is a lack of donated corneas. Not only was the procedure safe for all 20 participants, the researchers found that 2 years after the operation, none of the patients were blind anymore. Furthermore, 3 of the Indian participants who had earlier been blind, had perfect (20/20) vision after operation. The researchers said they want their method to be affordable for everyone.

“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,” said Neil Lagali, Professor of Experimental Ophthalmology at Sweden’s Linköping University, one of the researchers behind the study.

(SOURCE: NATURE BIOTECHNOLOGY)

First published on: 17-08-2022 at 04:10:55 am
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