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Artificially Grown Corneas Could Be Used for Transplants and Drug, Cosmetic Testing

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WebMD Health News

Dec. 9, 1999 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) -- A team of scientists has grown artificial human corneas that look and function much like real ones, according to an article in the Dec. 10 issue of Science.

"These corneas have the potential to eliminate the need for live animals in toxicity testing of new drugs and cosmetics and, in the near future, we hope to develop a cornea that can be transplanted into people's eyes," lead researcher May Griffith, PhD, tells WebMD.

Griffith, a cell biologist at the University of Ottawa Eye Institute, and Mitchell Watsky, MD, of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis, and their colleagues used cultured human cornea cells to grow "functional human corneal equivalents," according to the report.

"The corneal equivalents look and function like real corneas," says Griffith, an assistant professor and associate research scientist who has spent five years working on the project. "They have the same microscopic structure and transparency as natural human corneas."

The corneal equivalents could be a boon for people who suffer corneal disease or corneal injuries. The waiting list for corneal transplants, in most geographical areas, is long.

"We hope to ultimately solve that problem," says Griffith.

Another goal of the research was to develop eye tissue that resembles human eye tissue so completely that it could be used as a replacement for animal testing. "If it looks like a cornea and reacts like a cornea we will have accomplished that goal," says Griffith.

Alan Goldberg, MD, PhD, tells WebMD, "One of the things we have not had is a three-dimensional construct of the human cornea. This, according to my reading of the paper, is the first scientific demonstration of a 3-D construct that shows a biological response to a toxic exposure. It offers the possibility of being used as replacement tissue, as well being used for biological modeling."

Goldman, director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at the Johns Hopkins Univerisity School of Public Health, puts emphasis on the word "possibility." He points out that the researchers have to demonstrate two things: they have to confirm that functional human corneal equivalents respond the same way that natural human corneas do and they have to learn how to mass produce them.

"The study has a lot of potential, but this technique is not ready for use at the present time," says David R. Whikehart, PhD, in an interview seeking an objective assessment of the study.

"Their 'immortalized' cells are expected to grow continuously. Unfortunately what often develops in such cells are chromosomal abnormalities," says Whikehart, a professor at the Vision Science Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He doubts whether such cells could function as normal corneal cells.

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