Cornea made from pig cells restores sight to blind patients

Cornea made from pig cells restores sight to blind patients

20 patients with visual degeneration, some even blind, have regained their sight thanks to an implant based on pig skin protein. These early study results could lead to more clinical trials and alleviate the lack of human corneal grafts.

Say no more lynx eyes. Researchers at Linköping University in Sweden have designed an implant based on collagen protein from pig skin, which has improved the sight of 20 people suffering from one of the main diseases of the cornea, keratoconus. Among them, 14 were initially blind. All reported an improvement in their vision, 3 even regained optimal vision (20/20). If the results are only those of the first phase of a pilot study, disclosed in Nature Biotechnology on August 11, remain encouraging and could follow up to larger clinical trials.

Faced with a serious shortage of donor corneas, the issue here is very important, because it would reduce the waiting time for many patients. “An estimated 12.7 million people are waiting for a donated cornea, with one cornea available for every 70 needed. With an incidence of more than one million new cases of corneal cecité for an, the serious shortage of cornées de donneurs presents an inégal fardeau de cecité fortement biaisé vers les pays à revenu faible et intermediaire d’Asie, d’Afrique et du Middle East, alert scientists in the study. More than half of the world’s population does not have access to corneal transplantation due to the lack of infrastructure for tissue donation, collection, analysis and eye banking.

The pig skin used is a by-product of the food industry. “We have gone to great lengths to ensure that our invention is widely available and affordable for everyone, not just the wealthy. That is why this technology can be used in all regions of the world.” says in a press release Mehrdad Rafat, researcher and entrepreneur behind the design and development of the implants.

Less invasive operation

In addition to being inexpensive and readily available on the market, this bioartificial cornea can be “stores up to two years and thus reaches more people with vision problems”, adds Neil Lagali, another researcher behind the study. By way of comparison, a human cornea from a donor must be used within two weeks.

But the feat is also that of innovative surgery. Researchers have developed a less invasive technique to treat keratoconus disease. “With our method, the surgeon does not need to remove tissue from the patient. Instead, a small incision is made through which the implant is inserted into the existing cornea.” explains Neil Lagali, who led the research group that developed this surgical method. The corneal incision can be made with great precision using a state-of-the-art laser, but also by hand with more conventional surgical instruments.

Prevent the risk of rejection

After two years of follow-up, none of the 20 patients presented postoperative adverse effects. “Transparency was maintained without degradation, scarring, adverse reactions, or events requiring hospitalization, intensive care, or additional surgery, thus meeting safety criteria,” the study points out. After a transplant, the fear is also of rejection. And there again, the scientists got a pleasant surprise: an eight-week treatment with immunosuppressive drops was enough to prevent this risk. With a conventional transplant, medication is needed for several years.

In November, an ophthalmologist at the Fondation-Rothschild hospital in Paris, Eric Gabison, performed a 100% artificial cornea transplant for the first time in Europe. Suffering from a serious pathology, the patient had been transplanted six times, each time chaining rejections and infections, before this success.

In general, xenografts (with grafts from another species) involving pigs have multiplied in recent years. In January, in Baltimore, a 57-year-old man had a pig’s heart transplanted. Although he died two months later, this represents a world first and a major scientific breakthrough. This animal is one of the best donors for humans, due to its immunological closeness and the size of its organs.

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