By Drew Virtue
Seeing is believing
The cornea is one of the most important parts of our body because it enables our power of sight. It is also one of the most common parts of our body to break down over the years.
"The cornea is the most commonly transplanted tissue in the country, far more commonly than kidneys, or hearts, or lungs, or anything else that is transplantable," said University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor Allison Hubel. "About 44,000 individuals a year get corneal transplants and with the population aging that need will only continue to grow."
Professor Hubel's nanotechnology-enabled research to develop an artificial substitute for the cornea becomes more important every day.
A new way to see
"The physical structure of the cornea is unlike any other structure in the body and is very unique, and as a result it is not inconceivable that a replacement for it must also be nano structured," explains Hubel. "What we are working on right now is using a hybrid material that is naturally occurring molecules, but two of the molecules together will influence the self-assembly, the actual molecular and nano scale structure of the material," she said.
The unique aspect of this research has thus far led to significant success, "We are the only place in the country that is using this very novel silica hybrid within our development of artificial corneas." There is similar cornea replacement research under way elsewhere, but the focus of that work relies on synthetic polymers. Synthetic polymers offer many potential benefits to the development of artificial corneas, but lack the characteristics to make it a compatible product for the biological environment in the eye.
Developing a new biomedical technology, Hubel explains, presents dual challenges. "Any time you deal with biomedical applications you have the challenges inherent to the technology you're developing coupled with the challenges of that application in a biological environment." The professor notes these challenges are both exciting components of her work, however, because they present unique "challenges and opportunities" for her and her research team.
Moving from science to practice
Hubel's use of a silica hybrid has offered significant advantages for this cornea product to eventually be accepted by a biological system. "We're working in conjunction with a group at the Mayo Clinic assessing the bio compatibility, so we can actually bring this far enough along that it could be licensed to a company or something of the sort, but [that next group] would be responsible for clinical trials," explains Hubel.