What! Artificial corneas can be made from fish scales!

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According to the World Health Organization, the population that needs cornea transplant to cure cornea injury and other diseases is about 10 million; however, corneas for transplantation only come from the donation of deceased donors.  This results in a severe shortage of corneas, and only 4 % of patients can have the opportunity to take cornea transplant surgery.  Thus, over the past hundred years, medical scientists worldwide all dedicate to finding alternatives to human corneas, but mostly in vain.

Artificial corneas made from fish scales
Photo courtesy: news.yahoo. Apr. 15, 2016 Retrieved from https://goo.gl/3x4Bvy

Surprisingly, scientists have found a strong possibility that fish scales can be made into the sight-saving artificial corneas.  At present, the development of fish scale corneas has entered human trials at the University Hospital of Cologne, Germany.  As expected, the fastest official use may occur in the second quarter of 2018 ,which will benefit many visually impaired patients who wait for donated corneas.

Fish scales
Photo courtesy: twimg.edgesuite.ne. Apr. 15, 2016 Retrieved from http://goo.gl/iB47X1

The developers behind the fish scale corneas are the R&D Team of a biomedical firm, Aeonastron.  They spend over a decade to complete their fantasy of turning fish scales into the artificial corneas.

Before they dived into developing artificial corneas, they had successfully utilized the pig collagen to produce the world's first ocular tissue repair product Ologen® CollagenMatrix.  The repair product was suitable for glaucoma, strabismus, eye surgery, and other surgical treatments and had been used in over 20000 cases.  Though their Ologen® CollagenMatrix was successful, they still worked on developing new materials to improve the Ologen® CollagenMatrix and build new products.

Ologen® CollagenMatrix

Photo courtesy: aeonastron Apr. 15, 2016 Retrieved from http://goo.gl/kjTIQj

In 2006, their journey of inventing artificial corneas  began.  After receiving the encouragement from Dr. Robert Ritch, the former President of American Academy of Ophthalmology, they devoted in the research of biological materials of corneal regeneration. The research, however, did not go well.  The R & D team almost did experiments with every domesticated animal such as chickens, ducks, pigs and rabbits, but getting no results.  

One day, just when they dined in a restaurant and thought of giving up, they saw a tilapia dish. Soon, an idea stroked them.  They hypothesized that whether they could use the structure of fish scales to develop medical equipment or not.  “We found the structure of  the fish scale and the human cornea had plenty in common. After numerous experiments, we finally could make a corneal structure from fish scales which could fit into eyes.  For cornea impaired patients, scale based materials could reduce the cost and price.  It could increase the product popularity and reduce the financial burden,” the senior engineer said.  In 2008, they finally succeed in using Taiwan tilapia’s scales to regenerate the cornea cells.          

After they invested heavily in the development of artificial corneas, their funds gradually dried up and endangered the company. Fortunately, in early 2012, the chairman of Aeonastron set a subsidiary in the Netherlands which received € 500,000 for the aid of biological lens program from the Dutch government and obtained € 3000000 of innovative credit from the Dutch Deputy Prime Minister.  In the EU Horizon 2020, the company stood out from more than 300 manufacturers and becomes the only 6 teams that received 5.99 million funds.  The funds were like the timely rain which saves the collapsing company.  

With decades of hard work, they eventually developed a technology that could eliminate the cells and calcium from the scales to make artificial corneas.  This kind of cornea was a structure that could allow stem cells to be cultured on and formed patients’ own corneas.  It also had no risk of transplant rejection.  “Now we had upgraded our products to the fourth generation.  The human cornea moisture content is about 78%, but our cornea can reach to 78-80%.  The oxygen permeability of human cornea was 24x10-11, but ours was 41x10-11.  Our corneas were even better than the human's corneas,” said the chairman.      

Even though they had a lot to do to apply this technology in corneal transplantation, the chairman, Mr. Lai, still confidently said,” We had 90% chance to launch this product onto the market within two years.”  Needless to say, this technology will benefit plenty of patients when the products finally release.


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