The Electrospinning Company has supplied biodegradable synthetic membranes to a team, led by Professor Sheila MacNeil of the University of Sheffield, who are developing affordable corneal surface regeneration techniques in collaboration with experts in India. A publication in Biomaterials titled “Simplifying corneal surface regeneration using a biodegradable synthetic membrane and limbal tissue explants” http://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S0142961213003864), on which Dr Rob McKean is a co-author, describes how corneal cells have been successfully cultured on a synthetic sterilised biodegradable membrane either from cells isolated in a laboratory or from cells grown out from very small pieces of tissue.
Specialist stem cells at the front of the eye have the job of keeping the cornea clear and scar-free. If someone loses the population of cells that renew this corneal epithelium then surrounding scar type tissue grows over the eye with resulting loss of vision and pain. For some 15 years in a few specialist centres around the world it has been possible to take a small piece of tissue from the unaffected eye, expand these cells in a specialist laboratory and then transplant these back to the cornea, applying the cells to the damaged cornea on pieces of human donor amniotic membrane. This requires access to a well run tissue bank to access the donor amniotic membrane, as well as access to clean rooms, specialist clean room staff to culture the cells and considerable surgical skill. The Sheffield-India collaboration, funded by the Wellcome Trust, is aiming to simplify this technique to make it available to ophthalmic surgeons worldwide. There are two steps in the thinking – can a new corneal epithelium be regenerated from a very small piece of the unaffected eye and can a synthetic membrane be produced as an alternative to the human amniotic membrane which can be stored and ready for use by surgeons anywhere. The team have already tested out the first concept that a corneal epithelium can be regenerated on the eye with very small pieces of tissue (currently cultured on the human amniotic membrane) and have now completed the development of the synthetic sterilised biodegradable membrane which can be stored at -20°C for at least a year before use. The team hope to progress to a first in man pilot study within the next 12 months.