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Healing power of light: Canadian team advances clear vision for eye repair


With the potential to impact millions of patients, a study finds that biomimetic materials pulsed with low-energy blue light can reshape damaged corneas, including thickening the tissue.

a womans eye with a rainbow of light shining on it. (Image Credit: AdobeStock/Jon Schulte)

(Image Credit: AdobeStock/Jon Schulte)

An injectable biomaterial activated by pulses of low-energy blue light has tremendous potential for on-the-spot repair to the domed outer layer of the eye, according to a team of University of Ottawa researchers and their collaborators.

According to a University of Ottawa news release, the researchers’ results, guided by biometric design, show that a novel light-activated material can be used to effectively reshape and thicken damaged corneal tissue, promoting healing and recovery.

The university noted that the technology could prove to be a paradigm shift when it comes to cornea repair, which impacts tens of millions of people across the globe who suffer from corneal diseases and only a small fraction are eligible for corneal transplantation. Transplant operations are the current gold standard for ailments resulting in thinning corneas such as keratoconus, a poorly understood eye disease that results in loss of vision for many people.

“Our technology is a leap in the field of corneal repair. We are confident this could become a practical solution to treat patients living with diseases that negatively impact corneal shape and geometry, including keratoconus,” according to Emilio Alarcon, PhD, an associate professor at the Ottawa Faculty of Medicine and a researcher at the BioEngineering and Therapeutic Solutions (BEaTS) group at the University of Ottawa Health Group.

According to the university news release, the collaborative team’s research was published in Advanced Functional Materials.1

The researchers noted the biomaterials devised and tested by the team are comprised of short peptides and naturally occurring polymers called glycosaminoglycans. In the form of a viscous liquid, the material gets injected within corneal tissue after a tiny pocket is surgically created. When pulsed with low-energy blue light, the injected peptide-based hydrogel hardens and forms into a tissue-like 3D-structure within minutes. Alarcon said this then becomes a transparent material with similar properties to those measured in pig corneas.

Moreover, In vivo experiments using a rat model demonstrated that the light-activated hydrogel could thicken corneas with no side effects. The research team – which employed a much smaller blue light dosage compared to what’s been used in other studies – tested the technology in an ex vivo pig cornea model. Testing in large animal models will be necessary prior to clinical human trials.1

Alarcon, whose Ottawa lab focuses on developing new materials with regenerative capabilities for tissue of the heart, skin, and cornea, noted that the material was engineered to harvest the blue light energy to trigger the on-the-spot assembling of the material into a cornea-like structure.

“Our cumulative data indicates that the materials are non-toxic and remain for several weeks in an animal model,” he said in the news release. “We anticipate our material will remain stable and be non-toxic in human corneas.”

The university noted in the news release the researchers’ efforts took more than seven years to reach the publication stage.

“We had to engineer each part of the components involved in the technology, from the light source to the molecules used in the study,” Alacon said. “The technology was developed to be clinically translatable, meaning all components must be designed to be ultimately manufacturable following strict standards for sterility.”

The research findings are also the focus of a patent application, which is presently under negotiations for licensing.

According to the news release, the research was supported by an NSERC Discovery grant, a Collaborative Health Research Projects grant, the government of Ontario and the Ottawa Heart Institute.

  1. Aidan J. MacAdam, Marcelo Munoz, Jinane El Hage, Kevin Hu, Alex Ross, Astha Chandra, Jodi D. Edwards, Zian Shahod, Sophia Mourcos, Maxine E Comtois-Nona, Alejandro Juarex, et.al. Low Energy Blue Pulsed Light-Activated Injectiable Materials for Restoring Thinning Corneas. Advanced Functional Materials. Published July 19, 2023. Accessed July 26, 2023. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202302721
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