August 23, 2004.
By Lee Glendinning,
British scientists are hoping to become the first in the world to create an artificial cornea which could save millions from blindness.
Designing an implant which can be embedded in the eye without being rejected is something scientists have been trying to do for more than a century.
Researchers from Lancaster University and Sheffield University said yesterday they had high hopes for a breakthrough within five years, which could avoid patients having to wait years for a cornea transplant.
For the past 20 years, doctors have performed cornea transplants on patients when their vision cannot be restored in any other way.
But while many operations are successful, there is a 25% chance that the graft will be rejected or fail within five years. This prompted British scientists to look for new ways to restore sight.
The project has received a £425,000 grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council.
About 10 million people worldwide suffer from blindness caused by corneal disease.
In some countries, such as India and China, people are reluctant to donate body parts, especially the eyes, and in the UK patients can wait several months for a donor.
Dr Nigel Fullwood, from Lancaster's biological sciences department, hopes that the initiative will result in a useable artificial cornea within five years. "We are using a new approach," he said. "The cornea will be made from a uniquely formulated hydrogel - a polymer which has a high water content - the sort of material that soft contact lenses are made from."
The artificial cornea will be modified so that it can be inserted the same way as a conventional cornea transplant, and would then become fully integrated into the eye.
"If we succeed", he said, "instead of waiting for a donor cornea you will be able to get one off the shelf - in a similar way a plastic lens is used in a cataract operation."
The cornea is the transparent, outer window of the eye, just half a millimetre thick.
If it is healthy, it is transparent and allows light to pass through to the retina at the back of the eye. But when it is deformed or damaged, the path of light can become distorted. As a result, the picture that the retina passes on to the brain is not clear and vision becomes patchy.
Cornea disease, which can lead to blindness, is often caused by genetic conditions, the effects of ultraviolet rays, infections or accidents.
Dr Fullwood said they hoped to be able to enter clinical trials with the artificial corneas within three years.
The scientific team also hopes to get commercial backing for the project, which involves Arum Brahma, a surgeon at Manchester royal eye hospital. "Our goal is that it will result in the improvement or restoration of sight," he said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004.
Source URL: http://society.guardian.co.uk/health/story/0,7890,1288736,00.html.
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