FAMU laboratory first in U.S. to print human cornea

Published: May. 30, 2019 at 3:33 PM EDT
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By: Katie Kaplan | WCTV Eyewitness News

May 30, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- For the first time in the United States, a 3D cornea was printed using human cells. The science was conducted by researchers in the College of Pharmacy at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee.

The research will help scientists get closer to helping people see again, and will hopefully eliminate animal testing.

The research team is made up of only three people. The project is housed at Florida A&M, and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Some of the work is the first of its kind and, the scientists said, it is just the tip of the iceberg.

"This syringe right here is full of hydrogel and also cells," explained research assistant Paul Dinh.

Dinh, 20, became interested in the field while in high school.

"I had started looking into [things] like, tissue engineering, just on the side, like YouTube, or things like that," he explained.

Fast forward several years, he is working in the lab trying to better understand how the human eye heals.

"We thought, 'Why can't we 3D print a cornea?'" said professor Mandip Sachdeva, who leads the team. "We have been trying to learn every day and we have learned a lot in the process."

The group has spent the past year and a half creating an entire 3D model of a blinking eyeball. The corneas are printed in 3D by a bio-printer, and made from materials including human cells.

"That's like making a recipe for a good dish. You have to have a good recipe for your cornea," Sachdeva said.

The cornea technology was created by a scientist in the United Kingdom, but the lab is expanding on it, making it more efficient by creating a mold to print multiples.

"I was here really late at the lab and it took me so long because I had to print, like, 12 corneas, or something, for the week, so I thought, man, we need to come up with something so we can print 6," Dinh recalled.

The diameter and dimension of an average cornea are entered into the printer. It takes roughly 10 minutes to make half-a-dozen corneas.

"Regular 3D printers, normally they extrude some sort of hot plastic that eventually takes the shape of whatever you want," Dinh said. "Same thing as a bio-printer, except instead of extruding a hot plastic, we can extrude materials that are similar or present in the human body."

The machine prints from the bottom up. Then, graduate student Shallu Kutleria takes over, incubating and growing the cells.

"From there onward we can set up an assembly of 3D-printed corneas in a defeated cell system and then test a lot of formulas or products at the same time and test the data," Sachedva said.

The corneas will eventually be entered into an artificial blinking eye, which was also printed in 3D, tear fluid and all. That way, products can be tested in a simulated atmosphere.

"Then we will try various formulations and we can see the wound healing," Sachdeva explained.

Sachdeva said the method will provide more accuracy, and saves animals from being tested; something that cuts costs and is more humane.

For Dinh, who spends his free time dabbling in photography, he hopes the team's work will some day help others.

"I can go and travel and see all these beautiful things and then there's people out there that can't really see at all," he said. "It really made me appreciate the work that I was doing and that it had meaning to it and maybe my work can help someone down the line."

Dinh said he hopes to one day make an eye that's suitable for transplants.

Professor Sachdeva said that while there is still a lot of innovation to be done in the field, they are only weeks away from inserting the cornea into the eye model.