Blind and visually impaired patients have their sight restored using bioengineered corneas

Blind and visually impaired patients have their sight restored using bioengineered corneas

Image of the cornea transplant. Credit: Twitter@liu_universitet

In an incredible study by researchers using bioengineered corneas, blind and visually impaired patients had their sight restored.

A report published on Thursday, August 11, revealed that researchers and entrepreneurs at a Swedish university have developed a bioengineered implant made of collagen protein from pig’s skin, which resembles the human cornea.

20 people with diseased corneas, most of whom were blind prior to receiving the implant, reportedly had their sight restored after the operation. The study, jointly led by researchers at Linkoping University (LiU) and LinkoCare Life Sciences AB has recently been published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

People suffering from corneal blindness and low vision now have a glimmer of hope with these positive test results. In many countries, donated human corneas are scarce, but this procedure provides an alternative to the traditional transplantation method.

“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 at the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences at LiU, one of the researchers behind the study.

“This gets us around the problem of shortage of donated corneal tissue and access to other treatments for eye diseases”, he added.

The cornea is the outermost transparent layer of the eye, which can often become damaged or diseased. An estimated 12.7 million people around the world are blind due to this condition. Their only solution currently is to receive a transplanted cornea from a human donor.

However, just one in 70 patients receive a cornea transplant. Furthermore, most of those who need cornea transplants live in low and middle-income countries in which access to treatments is very limited.

“Safety and effectiveness of the bioengineered implants have been the core of our work”, commented Mehrdad Rafat, the researcher and entrepreneur behind the design and development of the implants. 

“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”  he assured.

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

A huge positive of this new discovery is that while donated corneas must be used within two weeks, bioengineered corneas can be stored for up to two years before use. The pig skin used to engineer them is easily accessible as it is a byproduct of the food industry. This also makes it economically viable.

A traditional cornea transplant involves the patient’s cornea being removed surgically. It is then replaced with a donated cornea, which the surgeon sews into place with surgical sutures.

As explained by Neil Lagali: “A less invasive method could be used in more hospitals, thereby helping more people. With our method, the surgeon doesn’t need to remove the patient’s own tissue. Instead, a small incision is made, through which the implant is inserted into the existing cornea”.

This new procedure can be done with high precision thanks to advanced laser technology. When initially tested on pigs, the operation turned out to be simpler and potentially safer than a conventional cornea transplant.

Surgeons in Iran and India were used to carry out the study. These are two countries where the lack of donated corneas is significantly low. Many people suffer from corneal blindness and low vision in the two countries.

The 20 patients who participated in the study were either blind or on the verge of losing their sight due to advanced keratoconus. Each patient received the bioengineered implant and after eight weeks of being treated only with immunosuppressive eye drops, the tissue healed and was not rejected. None showed any complications in a two-year follow-up study.

With conventional cornea transplants, medicine must be taken for several years after the operation is carried out. Before the operation, 14 of the 20 participants were blind. Two years later, none of them was blind. Three of the Indian participants who had been blind prior to the study had perfect 20/20 vision.


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Written by

Chris King

Originally from Wales, Chris spent years on the Costa del Sol before moving to the Algarve where he is a web reporter for The Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news. Got a news story you want to share? Then get in touch at