Donor corneas are extremely rare, but for 40,000 people in Europe corneal transplantation from donors offer the only hope of addressing blindness in one or both eyes. That was, until Dr. Joachim Storsberg of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP in Potsdam-Golm created the first artificial cornea, which has been successfully trialed and has been in use now since 2009. For this contribution to medical science, Dr. Storsberg has been awarded the 2010 Joseph von Fraunhofer Prize.
The specifications for a synthetic cornea are precise: the synthetic material must bond with the cells of the surrounding tissue, but it must not bond in the middle optical region of the artificial cornea. The outer side of the cornea must moisten with tear fluids and allow the eyelid to slide across without friction. Any deviation from these specifications would decrease the effectiveness of the cornea, impair sight, and perhaps require a new prosthesis after a short time.
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The cornea was produced from a hydrophobic polymer material that is commonly used in ophthalmology - however it required some developments to be effective for the purpose. Chemically it was altered, modified and re-tested according to medical standards before under-going the physical alterations to meet the specifications. First the edge of the implant was coated with various polymers, then a protein added with a specific sequence of a growth factor. The natural cells in the eye are stimulated by the growth factor to propagate and populate the surface of the artificial cornea in the specified regions. From this point the normal tissue will grow with the prosthesis.
The artificial cornea was the joint effort of physicians and manufacturers involved with the EU project “Artifical Cornea“ over three years. Dr. Storsberg consulted Dr. Karin Kobuch of the Poliklinik für Augenheilkunde at the Regensburg University Medical Center, and Dr. Gernot Duncker and Dr. Saadettin Sel of the University Center for Ophthalmology in Halle for testing in pigs' and rabbits' eyes respectively. Miro GmbH manufactured the upgraded product, ROBIN GmbH arranged distribution and sales and by 2009 the prosthesis was successfully in use aiding patients who are unable to receive donor corneas, or whose donor corneas were destroyed.
Other research in the field of cornea repair include China's work in regenerative tissue; the reconnection of incisions in the cornea with Photochemical Tissue Bonding; and the culture of healthy stem cells on contact lenses, however, so far this is the world's first artificially-manufactured cornea.
The Stifterverband (Association of Donors) views itself as intermediary between business and science and endows 1.3 billion euro for 350 projects. For the past 8 years, it has bestowed on the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft a prize of 50,000 euros recognizing the scientific excellence of joint projects in applied research that the Fraunhofer institutes have developed in conjunction with business and/or other research organizations. The Joseph von Fraunhofer Prize rewards research for practical uses each year for the outstanding scientific accomplishments of its employees who solve applications-based problems. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is a leading organization for applied research in Europe, numbering 59 institutes with 17,000 employees.