Doctors at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London made history today after they performed a surgery in which they fitted the first fully digitally created 3D printed eye. The 3D-printed prosthetic eye looks more realistic than traditional acrylic implants and the 3-D manufacturing process greatly shortens the waiting time from a couple of months to only 2-3 weeks.
The lucky recipient is Steve Verze, an engineer in his 40s from Hackney, east London.
“I’ve needed a prosthetic since I was 20, and I’ve always felt self-conscious about it. When I leave my home I often take a second glance in the mirror, and I’ve not liked what I’ve seen. This new eye looks fantastic and, being based on 3D digital printing technology, it’s only going to get better and better,” said Steve.
When a person needs an eye prosthetic, either because the eye didn’t develop normally from birth or because of some accident, typically the eye socket has to be molded in order to create a cast for the new prosthetic. That’s because every eye socket is unique, and an eye prosthetic is definitely something you want to fit tightly and never drop out.
But with 3D printing, the invasive molding of the socket is no longer required. Instead, a device scans and maps the structure of the socket. In fact, both eye sockets are scanned in order to create a perfect match. The digital 3D model is then sent to a lab in Germany, where it takes only 2.5 hours to print before being shipped back to Moorfields where the eye is finished, polished, and fitted.
From start to finish, the entire process takes only two to three weeks, compared to the months it takes going down the traditional route.
“We are excited about the potential for this fully digital prosthetic eye. We hope the forthcoming clinical trial will provide us with robust evidence about the value of this new technology, showing what a difference it makes for patients. It clearly has the potential to reduce waiting lists,” said Professor Mandeep Sagoo, the clinical lead at Moorfields Eye Hospital for the trial of the new prosthetic eye and Professor of Ophthalmology and Ocular Oncology at University College London.
Steve is the first recipient of a 3D printed eye prosthetic among humans, but not the first overall. That distinction belongs to two beagles who were fitted with a low-cost personalized artificial eye for canines by scientists at Chungbuk National University in South Korea.
The new prosthetic eye is classed as a ‘biomimicking’ device, meaning it is based on nature and more closely resembles a real eye. For instance, it has a clearer definition and the pupil has depth, making the prosthetic look more ‘real’ when it is hit by light. Traditional eye prosthetics have the iris hand-painted onto a disc embedded into the eye, which prevents the light from passing deep through the eye. In other words, the new prosthetic looks less like a prosthetic, which is exactly what you want from such an implant.
However, the 3D-printed eye is not bionic, which involves implanting electromechanical parts. Examples of bionic prosthetics include mechanical arms or legs that are controlled by the patient’s thoughts through a brain-computer interface. Only a few years ago, the world hailed the first bionic eye, a groundbreaking retinal prosthesis called the Argus II, meant for people with impaired vision. It enables people blinded by retinitis pigmentosa to see shapes, movement and — maybe someday soon — color.
Combining bionic vision technology with this new method for 3D-printed prosthetic eyes could provide the best of both worlds.