Scientists Can Now 3D Print a Cornea to Restore Eyesight

The 3D-printed personalized cornea carries less risk of rejection and could soon be a solution for people with corneal disorders and age-related vision impairments.

The cornea is a clear, dome-shaped part of the eye that helps focus light for clear vision. However, like other tissues in the eye, corneas can experience damage resulting in vision impairment.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 2 million people experience blindness due to the loss of transparency in the cornea. Conditions that can lead to corneal blindness include viral or bacterial infections, trauma from contact lens use, and other issues such as dry eye disease.


While doctors can perform a cornea transplant to restore vision, the shortage of donors makes this option inaccessible for some people. Moreover, donated corneal tissue can lead to rejection reactions similar to other organ transplants.

Now, researchers from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), in collaboration with Carl Zeiss Meditec AG and Evonik Healthcare, have developed a laser-based 3D organ printing method to create a personalized cornea suitable for transplantation with less risk of rejection.

The team's idea was one of three to win KIT's NEULAND Innovation Contest 2024, an annual contest that allows researchers to showcase their concepts and scientific projects to industry members.

The "VisioPrinTech" process uses personalized bioink made from the individual's own stem cells and a transparent, chemically modified vegan collagen. Doctors can 3D print the new cornea during surgical removal of a patient's damaged tissue, allowing the direct production of corneal transplants in the eye.

Since clinicians print the cornea using a person's cells, the team says the risk of organ rejection is lower than in conventional corneal transplants.

"Instead of being dependent on cornea donations, we're using bioink made from the patient's own stem cells and chemically modified collagen fibers," said Professor Ute Schepers from the Institute of Functional Interfaces and the Institute of Biological and Chemical Systems at KIT, in a news release. "With our laser-based process, we can precisely position these cells to generate transparent and functional corneas with minimal risk of rejection."

Due to the success of their project, the research team is working on an application that clinicians can use to create engineered corneas and plan to begin testing this new technology soon.

Although this innovation brings people with corneal blindness one step closer to a solution, it's not the first time scientists have 3D-printed corneal tissue. Previously, Stanford Medicine and Newcastle University researchers used bioink and 3D bioprinting technology to engineer corneas in an effort to create an alternative to traditional corneal transplants.


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