Seeing the world with new eyes: Biosynthetic corneas restore vision in humans

August 25, 2010

A new study from researchers in Canada and Sweden has shown that biosynthetic corneas can help regenerate and repair damaged eye tissue and improve vision in humans. The results, from an early phase clinical trial with 10 patients, are published in the August 25th, 2010 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

“This study is important because it is the first to show that an artificially fabricated cornea can integrate with the human eye and stimulate regeneration,” said senior author Dr. May Griffith of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, the University of Ottawa and Linköping University. “With further research, this approach could help restore sight to millions of people who are waiting for a donated human cornea for transplantation.”

The cornea is a thin transparent layer of collagen and cells that acts as a window into the eyeball. It must be completely transparent to allow the light to enter and it also helps with focus. Globally, diseases that lead to clouding of the cornea represent the most common cause of blindness. More than a decade ago, Dr. Griffith and her colleagues began developing biosynthetic corneas in Ottawa, Canada, using collagen produced in the laboratory and moulded into the shape of a cornea. After extensive laboratory testing, Dr. Griffith began collaborating with Dr. Per Fagerholm, an eye surgeon at Linköping University in Sweden, to provide the first-in-human experience with biosynthetic cornea implantation.

Together, they initiated a clinical trial in 10 Swedish patients with advanced keratoconus or central corneal scarring. Each patient underwent surgery on one eye to remove damaged corneal tissue and replace it with the biosynthetic cornea, made from synthetically cross-linked recombinant human collagen. Over two years of follow-up, the researchers observed that cells and nerves from the patients’ own corneas had grown into the implant, resulting in a “regenerated” cornea that resembled normal, healthy tissue. Patients did not experience any rejection reaction or require long-term immune suppression, which are serious side effects associated with the use of human donor tissue. The biosynthetic corneas also became sensitive to touch and began producing normal tears to keep the eye oxygenated. Vision improved in six of the ten patients, and after contact lens fitting, vision was comparable to conventional corneal transplantation with human donor tissue.

“We are very encouraged by these results and by the great potential of biosynthetic corneas,” said Dr. Fagerholm. “Further biomaterial enhancements and modifications to the surgical technique are ongoing, and new studies are being planned that will extend the use of the biosynthetic cornea to a wider range of sight-threatening conditions requiring transplantation.”

This research was supported by grants from the Canadian Stem Cell Network, the Swedish Research Council and County of Östergötland and a European Union Marie Curie International Fellowship. Initial work in developing the biosynthetic corneas was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Recombinant human collagen type III used in formulating the biosynthetic corneas for the clinical study was provided by FibroGen, Inc., San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.

Dr. May Griffith is a Senior Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Professor at the University of Ottawa (Faculty of Medicine) and Professor of Regenerative Medicine and Director of the Integrative Regenerative Medicine Centre at Linköping University. Dr. Per Fagerholm is a Professor of Ophthalmology at Linköping University. Dr. Neil Lagali is a senior lecturer at Linköping University. Other authors are listed in the paper.

About the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) is the research arm of The Ottawa Hospital and is an affiliated institute of the University of Ottawa, closely associated with the University’s Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences. The OHRI includes more than 1,500 scientists, clinical investigators, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staff conducting research to improve the understanding, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease.

About Linköping University
Linköping University is organized in four faculties on three campuses. With a student population of 26,000 and 3,500 employees it is one of the major universities in Sweden. The Faculty of Health Sciences is integrated with the University Hospital and covers a broad range of research fields. Within the emerging Integrative Regenerative Medicine Centre there is a close collaboration with physicists at the Institute of Technology.

Media Contacts
Jennifer Paterson
Director, Communications and Public Relations
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
613-798-5555 ext. 73325
613-614-5253 (cell)

Åke Hjelm
Science editor, Communications office
Linköping University

Laura Hansen, Ph.D.,
Director Corporate Communications
FibroGen, Inc.