The cornea is the transparent, dome-shaped window covering the front of the eye that lets in light and helps focus it on the retina so that we can see. Disease or injury can make the cornea cloudy or distorted in shape, causing loss of vision. When this happens patients are offered a corneal transplantation which requires a continuous supply of healthy donor corneas.
However, worldwide demand has grown and, taken together with an aging population and the rapid rise in laser eye surgery (which can negatively affect the donor tissue suitability for transplantation), the search for an effective engineered replacement is essential if current levels of corneal transplantation are to be maintained.
More than 48,000 cornea transplants have been recorded on the UK Transplant Registry since the Corneal Transplant Service began in 1983.
Dr Che Connon, from the Reading School of Pharmacy at the University, will be working with Professor Ian Hamley in the Department of Chemistry to engineer a tissue suitable for cornea transplantation that uses human stem cells. It has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for three years.
The research team will develop a prosthetic cornea comprised solely from human cells and proteins, their growth and development having been directed by a synthetic polymer template which mimics the corneas natural architecture.
Dr Connon said: “This work represents a significant step forward in the development of biomaterials. Instead of applying a traditional approach to the design and use of biocompatible polymers for tissue replacement, our approach is to involve the cells themselves in the production of the actual biomaterial.
“Furthermore, this technique represents the ultimate in biocompatibility as it results in a biomaterial comprised wholly of human proteins, possibly even derived from cells taken from the patient’s own body. Ocular regenerative medicine would benefit enormously from the development of an accurate replacement to human donor corneal tissue.”
The current research stems from Dr Connon’s ongoing work in understanding the molecular structure underpinning corneal transparency, the development of novel corneal biomaterials and the limitations of current corneal stem cell transplantation techniques, specifically the materials used to grow and convey the stem cells to the patient.
The research is titled ‘Bioprosthetic cornea: using polymeric templates for directed stem cell growth’.
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