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3D Printing Corneas

In this edition of Foresight, we’re exploring the future of our industry and how technology will shape it. The practices of optometry and ophthalmology are rapidly transforming due to innovations and breakthroughs in both our tools and processes. There’s one breakthrough on the horizon that will radically change how we can help patients needing cornea replacements - 3D printing.

What is 3D printing?

3D Printing, often referred to as “additive manufacturing,” is the process of building a three-dimensional object from a computer-aided design (CAD) model, usually by successively adding material layer by layer. It removes the needs for molds and casts typically associated with manufacturing.  

What makes 3D printing worthy of our attention is the ability to print biological material. In 2018 scientists at Newcastle University 3D printed the first cornea. It took 10 minutes to create on a low-cost consumer-use 3D printer.

From the report: “Our unique gel - a combination of alginate and collagen - keeps the stem cells alive whilst producing a material which is stiff enough to hold its shape but soft enough to be squeezed out the nozzle of a 3D printer.”

The scientists began by measuring the dimensions from an actual cornea and then using the data to print their prototype rapidly.  

How will this impact our industry?

Today cornea availability does not meet the needs. With over 10 million people worldwide requiring surgery to avoid blindness due to disease and a sizable aging population in the United States, 3D printing could revolutionize care.  

Aside from increasing supply (which would, in turn, reduce costs for patients), biological 3D printing also throws open the doors to innovation. With more ophthalmologists having access to this technology, we could see new and innovative lenses being created at a much faster pace than anything available today. This technology is likely to be incredibly disruptive to existing lens manufacturers as it reaches maturity. The result of which will be a more streamlined process for developing unique and custom cornea transplants for patients.  

Today the technology is still in its infancy, and the implants are not ready for human use yet. If it follows the same exponential growth trajectory of nearly every advanced technology today, it will be here sooner than later. It’s an exciting breakthrough that we should all be keeping on eye on. The ability to rapidly print custom biological components will be a medical health breakthrough that will lead to millions of people receiving better care and treatment. Treatments that otherwise would have been unavailable to them. A prospect that should make all of us excited for the future!

To watch the 3D Printing of the Cornea, click here.

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