The human cornea possesses a remarkable preservation period of approximately 14 days after death, making it a viable option for transplantation. By donating healthy corneas to those suffering from corneal diseases, which are major contributors to vision loss, patients have the potential to regain their sight and experience improved vision.

Despite corneal diseases affecting 57 million people worldwide and resulting in $410 billion in productivity losses and reduced quality of life, only a small fraction of individuals are eligible for corneal transplantation. To address this issue, researchers at the University of Ottawa in Canada have made a significant breakthrough by developing a new material that can reshape and thicken damaged corneal tissue, promoting healing and recovery.

The cornea, a transparent part of the eye responsible for allowing light to enter and contributing to two-thirds of the eye’s focusing power, is prone to thinning as the population grows and ages. Transplant operations are currently the gold standard for treating thinning corneas, also known as keratoconus.

Keratoconus, affecting 21 per 1000 men and 18 per 1000 women, is typically managed with therapeutic contact lenses in its early stages. In later stages, corneal crosslinking is used to stabilize remaining collagen and prevent further degradation.

The researchers’ novel technology offers a promising solution for patients with corneal shape and geometry issues, including keratoconus. By developing light-activated injectable biomaterials, the team achieved properties closely resembling the human cornea. They fine-tuned the concentration of biopolymers and peptides in the hydrogel formulations. The material is administered in a viscous liquid state, injected into corneal tissue through a small surgical pocket.

Upon pulsing the injected peptide-based hydrogel with low-energy blue light, it quickly hardens, forming a tissue-like 3D structure. The result is a transparent material with properties comparable to those found in pig corneas. This cutting-edge technology has the potential to revolutionize corneal repair and offer a practical solution for patients with corneal thinning.

The researchers’ study, which spanned over seven years, was recently published in Advanced Functional Materials. This innovative approach, utilizing light-activated biomaterials, may pave the way for an effective treatment for corneal diseases and address the global shortage of donated corneas. With the ability to restore stromal thickness and alter corneal curvature, these materials hold promise for future clinical translation.

By Impact Lab