Two incredible new medical breakthroughs offer pathways to sight for millions of blind people around the globe.
The artificial cornea project
Joachim Storsberg of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP in Germany is one of the researchers who has helped create new technology designed to bring sight to the sightless.
Working with a revolutionary new type of opthalmological polymer that permits the eye to function correctly after fusing to the cornea, Storsberg believes the artificial lens will restore vision to thousands of hopeful transplant patients.
Back in 2001, the World Health Organization estimated approximately 5 million people in the world suffered total or partial blindness due to corneal damage or deterioration. It is believed that the number needing corneal transplants now greatly exceeds the 2001 number.
At any given moment about 100,000 people are awaiting donors. Until now these patients had to wait for a suitable donor to die so the corneal tissue could be transplanted. With the advent of the artificial cornea, the pressure of waiting on lists for years is eased and many millions could regain their sight quickly.
What makes Storsberg’s corneal implant revolutionary is the multiple interface that allows it to adapt to the needs of the patient’s eyes and the bio-physics of the eye itself. The ability for the artificial implant’s edge to bond to the living eye tissue around it is critical. To achieve this, Storberg created special polymers around the circumference of a universal polymers widely used in intraocular lenses.
Creating an amalgam of the polymer and a growth protein that encourages natural cell growth around the edge of the lens, the eye will naturally fuse with the implant adopting it as part of the body.
Crucial to the efficacy of the implant, however, is the ability of the polymer lens to remain unclouded; it must remain clear. Beyond the clarity of the lens, the implant must also be able to move freely with the eyelid’s function and balance the tear-moisture across its surface as a natural cornea does.
Storsberg and his team accomplished this feat.
The artificial implant has already been going through clinical trials since 2009 and doctors believe it will be available to patients within one to two years.
Successful stem cell cornea implants
In a second stunning development, it is being reported that 82 people whose eyes were blinded by chemical or heat burns have regained their sight after treatment with stem cells.
Thought by many researchers to be a bio-technology still years from success, Graziella Pellegrini at the University of Modena in Italy proved them wrong by demonstrating the method can work now.
Because the majority of the patients had damage in only one eye, the university research team was able to harvest healthy stem cells from the good eye. According to the report, the cells were taken from the limbus (a disc that surrounds the iris). After the implantation of the new stem cells, the damaged cornea’s opaqueness was restored to transparency.
Most of the patients had burns in only one eye, so Pellegrini’s team was able to treat them with corneal stem cells extracted from their good eye.
Pellegrini writes in his report on the surprise success: “Of the 107 eye patients treated, some as long as a decade ago, the successful cases had sight restored to a level up to 0.9 on a visual acuity scale, in which 1 represents perfect vision.”
Many researchers agree that within one or two decades at most all forms of blindness will be eradicated.
Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research
Artificial Cornea Project
Stem cell cornea breakthrough
The New England Journal of Medicine [DOI: 10.1056/nejmoa0905955]