Researchers at the University of Melbourne and the Center for Eye Research developed a method of growing cornea cells that can be implanted to the eye to restore vision. The team successfully treated animal subjects with the technique and hope to start human clinical trials next year.

The method involves taking the patient’s own cornea cells and growing them on a thin hydrogel film in the laboratory. Afterward, the cells are returned to the eye where these can restore normal functioning that keeps the cornea clear and healthy.

“We believe that our new treatment performs better than a donated cornea, and we hope to eventually use the patient’s own cells, reducing the risk of rejection,” says Berkay Ozcelik, the study’s lead researcher at the University of Melbourne. “Further trials are required but we hope to see the treatment trialed in patients next year.”

cornea cells

Berkay Ozcelik by University of Melbourne.

This approach could help individuals whose vision has been damaged due to aging, disease or trauma. These factors swell and cloud the cornea, causing vision problems and blindness. As of now, the treatment for these complications involves transplanting another person’s cornea onto the patient.

This procedure remains a difficult one since the number of corneas available remains very limited. Moreover, transplanted corneas can also be rejected by the patient’s immune system, causing problems that can even be fatal.

The researchers say that the hydrogel film is as thin as a human hair or about 50 micrometers (µm). It allows the flow of water between the cornea and the interior of a person’s eye. The film is not permanent. It will biodegrade in two months without causing serious adverse immune responses.

The research team asserts that more investigations are still needed. Nevertheless, they are optimistic that clinical trials on humans will begin as soon as 2017.