Let there be light

Let there be light

Have scientists solved a major cause of blindness?

Eyes are truly amazing things. Even the most sophisticated video cameras can't compete with them. They allow us to see thousands of colours, the finest details and instantly switch our focus from objects a just few centimetres in front of us to miles away. We take this for granted, but sometimes eyes need a helping hand when things go wrong.

What goes wrong?

Damage to the cornea is the second biggest cause of blindness, affecting around 10 million people. The cornea is the transparent layer at the front of the eye that lets light pass through the pupil to the lens and the retina.

 

Anatomy of the eye

If the cornea stops being transparent the eye is said to have a cataract. The cornea does a bit more than just acting as a transparent window; it also bends or refracts the light. If the cornea hasn't done its bit to bend light, the eye will never be able to focus and the world will always be a blur.

Up until now the only really effective treatment for a cataract is a cornea transplant. But this type of transplant has two main problems:

  • Supply: every cornea transplant requires a cornea donor, but there is a shortage of donors
  • Rejection: any transplanted organ is seen by the body as a foreign object, so the immune system tries to destroy it

There may be an answer

A team of Swedish scientists have created a synthetic cornea made of collagen. Collagen is a very strong and flexible protein and found in tissues like tendons, ligaments and skin.

Doctor looking through magnifying glass

Scientists made the synthetic cornea using yeast cells genetically implanted with human DNA sequences to produce the collagen. The synthetic cornea is such a good copy that the body thinks it is its own and doesn't reject it. This is seriously clever stuff. Even the nerve cells around it grow back, so that the whole cornea is regenerated. It actually becomes sensitive to touch and is able to produce tears.

So far, ten patients have received the synthetic cornea. They were all able to see again and none have developed complications. This is very rare in any complex medical treatment.

It is still early days, but fingers crossed. Is it going to be as significant as we hope? Only time will tell. Larger studies will have to done to make sure the results are truly as good as they seem.

Did you know…

The human eye is so sensitive that in total darkness it can detect a candle at a distance of 12 kilometres!

The human eye can distinguish between over 500 shades of grey! I didn't know there were so many different shades...

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