An unexpected bonus was that the implant changed the shape of the cornea enough that recipients could wear contact lenses for the best possible vision, even if they hadn’t tolerated them before.
The cornea helps focus light rays onto the retina at the back of the eye and protects the eye from dirt and germs. When damaged by an infection or injury, light can prevent it from reaching the retina, making it difficult to see.
Corneal blindness is a major problem: It is estimated that about 12.7 million people are affected by the condition, and the number of cases is increasing by about a million each year. Iran, India, China and several countries in Africa have particularly high levels of corneal blindness, especially keratoconus.
Because pig skin is a byproduct of the food industry, using this biotech implant should cost as much as transplanting a donor human cornea, said Neil Lagali, a professor in the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences at Linköping University, one of the the researchers behind the study.
“It will be affordable even for people in low-income countries,” he said. “There is a much greater cost savings compared to the way traditional corneal transplantation is done today.”
The team hopes to conduct a larger clinical trial involving at least 100 patients in Europe and the US. In the meantime, they plan to initiate the regulatory process needed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to eventually approve the device for market.