This is how the pig skin implants that restored sight to 20 blind people work

Después de dos años de las cirugías, los cuerpos de los pacientes con ceguera no rechazaron los implantes.

After two years of the surgeries, the bodies of the blind patients did not reject the implants.

Photo: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

About 20 people from Iran and India with diseased or damaged corneas participated in a pilot project, where had significant improvements in their vision after receiving implants designed with pig skin protein.

The findings were published Thursday in the journal Nature Biotechnology by the research team behind the technology used, in which they explained that human tissue is traditionally required for corneal transplants, but is scarce because people must volunteer to donate it after they die.

Neil Lagali, a professor of experimental ophthalmology at Linköping University in Sweden, who co-authored the study, explained that his team was looking for a low-cost, widely available substitute.

“Pork skin collagen is a byproduct of the food industry,” he said. “This makes it widely available and easier to acquire.”

How the implant works to reduce blindness

To create the implant, the specialist team dissolved pig tissue to form a purified collagen solution, which was subsequently used to design a hydrogel that mimics the human cornea.

Later, Surgeons made an incision in one patient’s cornea for the hydrogel. “We insert our material into this pocket to thicken the cornea and reshape it so that it can restore function to the cornea,” Lagali said.

Fortunately, after two years of having done the surgeries, the patients’ bodies did not reject the implants and did not have any inflammation or scarring.

Dr. Uri Soiberman, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins Medicine who was not involved in the research but specializes in the medical and surgical treatment of diseases of the cornea and anterior segment, including corneal transplants, cataract surgery and complications of intraocular lenses, explained that rejections usually occur within a year of a transplant. However, he stressed that in general terms, the body handles pig tissues quite well.

The participants who partially or fully regained their sight had keratoconus, a condition in which the eye’s protective outer layer progressively thins and bulges outward.

However, not all patients experienced the same degree of improvement in their blindness. For example, 12 Iranian patients ended up with an average visual acuity of 20/58 with glasses; functional vision is defined as 20/40 or better with glasses.

Another professional who was not involved in the study, Dr. Marian Macsai, a clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of Chicago, said that technology could be a game changer for people with keratoconus, which affects approximately 50 to 200 out of 100,000 people and could also have applications for other forms of corneal disease.

“The concept that we could have bioengineered corneas would be revolutionary,” Macsai said. “It would potentially eliminate the risk of rejection and potentially make corneas available to patients around the world.”

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