BLIND people have been cured in a major breakthrough of a new treatment.
Scientists used pig’s skin to create a cornea – the clear outer layer on the front of the eye.
The implant was given to 20 people who had diseased corneas, 14 of whom were completely blind.
Researchers at Linköping University (LiU), Sweden, said their vision was restored and three even had “perfect 20/20 vision”.
The participants recovered from the operation quickly and experienced no complications over a two-year follow-up.
The cornea is critical to eyesight because it is the first point of entry for light.
When it becomes diseased or injured, it clouds over or scars which causes vision loss and sensitivity to light.
Corneal damage is a leading cause of blindness worldwide, affecting an estimated 12.7 million people.
If treatments don’t work, doctors can remove the damaged part of the cornea and replace it with healthy corneal tissue from a donor.
More than 40,000 corneal transplants are performed each year in the US, and 3,800 in England.
However, there is a shortage of donated corneas from those who are deceased.
Corneas are the part of the body that most people say they do not want to donate.
One in 10 people on the NHS Organ Donor Register say they don’t want to donate their corneas.
The situation is worse for those who live in poor countries – the most affected by corneal damage – meaning only around one in 70 patients worldwide get one.
Those who do could still be unlukcy if the donor cornea is rejected by the body’s immune system.
But the new pig-made transplant give hope for millions with vision problems.
Prof Neil Lagali, Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences at LiU, one of the researchers said: “The results show that it is possible to develop a biomaterial that meets all the criteria for being used as human implants, which can be mass-produced and stored up to two years and thereby reach even more people with vision problems.
“This gets us around the problem of shortage of donated corneal tissue and access to other treatments for eye diseases.”
The pig’s skin contains collagen – the same material the human cornea is made of.
The collagen was extracted and moulded into a robust film that represented a cornea.
Surgeons in Iran and India – two countries where many people suffer from corneal blindness and low vision – ran the pilot study with the 20 patients.
All had keratoconus, an eye disease whereby the cornea gets thinner and becomes irregular in shape. It is one of the most common reasons for a cornea transplant.
The main purpose of the study was to investigate whether the implant was safe to use.
However, the researchers were surprised by what happened with the implant, with the participants’ sight improving as much as it would have after a cornea transplant with donated human tissue.
Before the treatment could be used on a wide scale, a larger study would be needed,
However, with pig skin an easily accessible by-product of the farming industry, it has potential to be a cheap and easy alternative to what’s currently on offer.
The creator Mehrdad Rafat, associate professor (senior lecturer) at LiU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, said: “We’ve made significant efforts to ensure that our invention will be widely available and affordable by all and not just by the wealthy.
“That’s why this technology can be used in all parts of the world.”
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