Eye implants made from pigskin have restored vision in people with blindness or severe vision impairment, according to a study published August 11 in Nature Biotechnology.
Researchers from Linköping University in Sweden and Tehran University of Medical Sciences worked with 20 patients from Iran and India with damage to the cornea clear, the protective outer layer of the eye. Of those patients, 14 were blind.
The research team used pigskin to create a material that would help thicken and protect the cornea to restore the eyes' function, Neil Lagali, co-author of the study and professor of experimental ophthalmology at Linköping University, told NBC News.
The resulting eye implant was so effective that three of the patients had perfect vision after the surgery, and 19 out of the 20 patients had at least some improvement to their vision. After two years of follow-up, patients hadn't rejected the tissue or experienced other complications, although some patients had more vision improvements than others.
Previously, cornea transplants were done with human tissue taken from volunteer organ donors after they died. But, as with other human donor organs, the tissue was in short supply compared to the number of patients in need, prompting researchers to look for a solution.
They found that the rich supply of collagen, a type of protein, in pigskin could be used to create a hydrogel to act similarly to the cornea.
"Collagen from pigskin is a byproduct from the food industry," Lagali told NBC News. "This makes it broadly available and easier to procure."
Pigs have recently been the go-to for other potential transplants to human patients, such as kidneys and hearts — genetic engineering has made it possible to change molecules in the pig cells to prevent an immune response and organ rejection in human recipients.
The caveat of the research is that it may not be effective for all types of cornea transplants, since the implant focuses on a specific part of the cornea.
But it could be "revolutionary" for people who, like the study patients, suffer from keratoconus, a condition that damages the cornea, said Dr. Marian Macsai, a clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of Chicago who wasn't involved in the study, in an interview with NBC News.
The research team plans to further test their results on a larger group of patients, and eventually get the procedure approved by regulators. It could someday help areas of the world most effected by blindness that tend to have fewer resources, Lagali said.