3D printing is enticing for its ability to bring ideas and images into the third dimension, allowing the human imagination to run wild, but it is technology far beyond novelty. 3D printing is used to make parts in engineering, and even as a medical tool. For instance, Newcastle University scientists have used the technology to print the first corneas.

The true to life details captured in the printed corneas were obtained through the scanning of patients’ eyes. The data from the scans allowed the scientists to promptly print a cornea matching the size and shape of the human eyes. The replica corneas were made from human corneal stromal cells mixed with alginate and collagen creating a ‘bio-ink’ that can be used in the 3D printer to produce prosthetic corneas. The scientists accomplished this using a basic 3D bio-printer to transform the bio-ink into printed corneas. The printing process took less than 10 minutes.

Over 10 million people across the globe need surgery to prevent blindness resulting from infections and diseases, but there are not adequate human corneas available to accommodate this need. With the introduction of 3D printing to provide transplant ready corneas means that, if medically approved for widespread use, in the near future there could be a constant supply of corneas. The creation of artificial corneas is an immense achievement for the Newcastle University. Close to 5 million people are completely blind as a result of injury or illness, and with 3D printed corneas available for continuous production, such blindness could be avoided for future generations to come.

It is no easy feat to have an invention approved for medical use, and as a result, the 3D printed corneas will have to be thoroughly tested and perfected before they are ready to use as transplants. Although the corneas are not yet patient ready, the scientists are understandably proud of their achievement as they have proven it is scientifically possible to create corneas from stem cells and printing technology. Now that is has been established as possible, scientists can focus on trialling their invention and working with medical professionals to ensure its safety.

The Newcastle scientists are not the first to produce human organs or tissues, but rather just the first to 3D print corneas. For example, researchers at Wake Forest University have said they have a 3D printer capable of producing bones, organs and tissues that could potentially be used as implants for living humans. Their printer works in a way much the same as the University of Newcastle’s printer works. The Wake Forest’s printer deposits water based solutions containing human cells. Their printer allows is able to print tissues compatible with blood vessels, which means that the cells can receive the oxygen needed to survive. The products they have printed so far show no signs of cells dying in the tissue. The Newcastle University scientists have also been able to keep cells alive for weeks at room temperature.

These incredible scientific breakthroughs have the potential to transform the painstaking transplant process whereby patients must wait until an organ or tissue become available. The reliance on the bodies of the deceased for this practice is exceedingly challenging to patients and medical professionals as so often availability is scarce. Sight and good health are incredible gifts bestowed upon the unfortunate individuals who require transplants by life saving donors, but to be able to carry out transplants without the need for an enormous waiting list would rehabilitate and even save the lives of so many more people.