The Cellular Control of Corneal Development and Transparency and Generation of Biomimetic Corneal Tissue.

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Optometry and Vision Sciences


The cornea is the clear tissue at the front of the eye, which transmits light and focuses it sharply onto the retina. Accordingly, it is absolutely essential for vision. Composed mostly of collagen, the cornea is not unlike other collagen-rich tissues, such as tendons, cartilages, intervertebral discs, or even the sclera; the "white of the eye". But what makes the cornea optically clear is the exquisite way in which the collagen is structured.

Collagen in the human body exists predominantly in the form of long fibres, which are very strong along their axes, and can be thought of as having mechanical properties rather like ropes on sailing ships or steel cables on suspension bridges. The organisation of collagen fibres in different tissues is contingent on the tissue's function, and the predominant requirement is usually mechanical. The cornea is unique in this regard because as well as the need to fulfil mechanical requirements, it needs to be transparent.

The bulk of the cornea is made up of cells, known as keratocytes, and collagen. Most collagen exists in the form of very long and very thin fibres, or fibrils as they are called in the cornea because they are so thin. Remarkably, and unlike all the other collagen-rich tissues in the body, collagen fibrils in cornea are all of exactly the same diameter and are arranged into a near-perfect, hexagonal-type lattice. It is this precise structural arrangement of collagen which gives the cornea its transparency. But, how does it arise?

Keratocytes in the cornea synthesise and deposit collagen. So, presumably these cells must be at least partly responsible for the way in which the collagen fibrils are laid down and arranged. We will use pioneering microscopic approaches across a wide range of magnifications, using laser and electron imaging technologies and working with scientists in the University of California, to study corneas from developing chicks in fertilised hen eggs. Our aim is to understand precisely how cells in the developing cornea interact with each other to make such a beautifully structured tissue as a transparent cornea (the basis of corneal transparency in the chick is the same as that in humans).

Recently, we pioneered the use of three-dimensional volume electron microscopy for the study of cornea, and discovered that cells in the developing chick cornea all have highly extended, but thin, cell processes. This showed that the cells themselves occupy a volume of the cornea which is much larger than previously believed. Based on this discovery, our hypothesis is that cells in the developing cornea form an extended network in which they communicate with each other, and that, as a group, they have the innate ability to synthesise incredibly thin collagen fibrils and deposit them into a precise lattice-like arrangement to meet the needs of transparency. To test this hypothesis we will study corneas from the very earliest stages of development, which have never before been examined in three dimensions at such high magnifications. New methodologies for the mathematical modelling of corneal light transmission will be applied to this data to ascertain the key structural requirements for corneal transparency. We will also investigate the cellular contribution to corneal transparency, both by mathematical modelling and by direct measurement of light scattering.

Finally, we will interfere with cell-communication pathways in corneal keratocytes, extracted from developing chick corneas and grown in the lab, to pinpoint what molecular mechanisms they use to communicate. These experiments and analyses, using a new way of growing cells in a three-dimensional environment, which we successfully developed to encourage tendon cells to synthesise aligned collagen fibres, will provide great insights for the field of corneal tissue engineering to help inform the intelligent design of the next generation of bioengineered corneal constructs.

Technical Summary

Corneal transparency is provided for by the unique arrangement of exquisitely organised, thin-diameter collagen fibrils which make up the corneal extracellular matrix, but how this comes into being is not understood.

The current research will apply pioneering correlative approaches in laser and electron-based imaging modalities - i.e. non-linear optical second harmonic generation (NLO-SHG), high-resolution macroscopy (HRMac), and serial block face scanning electron microscopy (SBF-SEM) - to investigate the fundamental mechanisms of cell-directed development of a functioning, transparent cornea. Importantly, these technologies are complementary across a wide range of structural hierarchies and spatial resolutions, and will provide new and detailed information in 3D about the formation, from the earliest stages of embryonic development, of the cornea's complex, tissue-specific, architecture.

This knowledge will be correlated with our new mathematical approaches, which will model corneal light transmission using Maxwell's equations based on the scattering of incident radiation by corneal components. This will be combined with the first ever direct measurement of the refractive index of corneal keratocytes to interrogate their contribution to corneal light scattering and transparency, and how this changes as development proceeds.

We will also apply scaffoldless 3D cultivation technologies, which we recently developed for the investigation of tendon cells and their in vitro deposition of "neo-tendons", to study corneal cells to ascertain how they communicate and coordinate the formation of the long-range, highly organised collagen-rich matrix. These studies will determine key fundamental mechanisms of corneal development, and will allow us to probe the potential of cell-based approaches for corneal tissue engineering.

Planned Impact

The research described in this proposal is predicted to make a demonstrable contribution to enhancing the knowledge economy in the UK and will lead to significant advances in our understanding of corneal development, and of tissue engineering to combat corneal blindness. Advances will be communicated to and debated with the public. The research also has a high potential for future economic impact via the development of a novel scaffold-free 3D tissue culture system for corneal tissue engineering and the subsequent production of biomimetic constructs for surgical use.

Impact Theme 1: Public Engagement.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. Over time, its structural organisation has evolved to meet the requirements of the particular tissue. Collagen fibres in tendons and ligaments, for example, are arranged mostly parallel, consistent with heavy tensile loading; the intervertebral disc on the other hand is layered to resist the compressive, bending and twisting forces in the spine, while collagen in the skin exists as a meshwork. The cornea is perhaps the most spectacular example of the link between tissue form and function, and collagen fibrils are thin and regularly spaced to scatter light in a special way to allow the front of the eye to be transparent. We will engage with the general public via school visits and Science Café events to debate the significance of collagen in health and wellbeing, and how it can be affected by various aspects of lifestyle, such as UV exposure, the intake of foodstuffs and medications such as sugar and aspirin, and, indeed, smoking.
Our Public Engagement activities will also inform the general public about the value of tissue engineering, and will seek their opinions as to the need for this technology and the way in which it is likely to develop over the coming decades. The discussion, using cornea as an example, will cover concepts such as cell-based production of biomimetic tissue (autologous and as an allograft), theuse of synthetic biomaterials, and the possible future impact of stem cells, IPS technology and 3D printing. The outcome of these discussions with the public will be communicated to the Chief Optometric Advisor for The Wales Government, Dr Barbara Ryan, to provide some insight into the views of the local public on ocular tissue engineering.
To engage with the community more widely will also create a dedicated website, on which we will summarise our discoveries. This will be written, updated and monitored by Dr Knupp in consultation with the other applicants, and will targeted at the general public and healthcare professionals.

Impact Theme 2: Potential Commercialisation of New Technologies and Tissue Engineered Constructs.
There is a very strong current interest in corneal tissue engineering. Recently, a consortium of academic and industry researchers in the USA, Sweden, and Canada, writing in Science Translational Medicine [2010;2:46ra61], presented data on collagen gels as possible corneal replacements, and highlighted the pressing need for the development of artificial corneal tissue. We will take advantage of the fact that cells in connective tissues make their own collagenous matrices, and will utilise a 3D culture system which we designed for tendon cells (Wreede R, Ralphs JR. Tissue Eng Part A 2009;15:2707-2715). Corneal cells will be grown in a scaffoldless environment to provide essential information about matrix bioassembly processes which lead to the establishment of a strong and transparent cornea. The work will help validate the suitability and optimisation of our cultivation procedures for corneal tissue engineering. Beneficiaries will be medical technology industries with interests in tissue engineering of corneal constructs.


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Bains KK (2019) Recovering vision in corneal epithelial stem cell deficient eyes. in Contact lens & anterior eye : the journal of the British Contact Lens Association

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Chan W (2016) Topical delivery of a Rho-kinase inhibitor to the cornea via mucoadhesive film. in European journal of pharmaceutical sciences : official journal of the European Federation for Pharmaceutical Sciences

Description We have furthered our understanding of the cell-cell and cell-matrix co-associations and co-dependencies in corneal development, using the developing chick cornea as a model system as well as a proxy in vitro model of corneal development based on induced pluripotent stem cells.
Exploitation Route To further the study of cell-matrix interactions and cell-cell interactions in corneal development
Sectors Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description BBSRC Japan Partnering Award
Amount £46,000 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/R021244/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2018 
End 03/2021
Description Fight for Sight Studentship
Amount £89,000 (GBP)
Organisation Fight for Sight 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 09/2021
Description Follow on Fund
Amount £144,900 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/N022106/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2017 
End 04/2018
Description Newton Fund
Amount £31,500 (GBP)
Organisation British Council 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2016 
End 07/2017
Description Pathfinder
Amount £7,203 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/P011969/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 11/2016
Description Cardiff-Doshisha Link 
Organisation Doshisha University
Country Japan 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Collaborative research leading to joint publications and grants.
Collaborator Contribution Collaborative research leading to joint publications and grants.
Impact Numerous publications
Start Year 2007
Description Cardiff-Kyoto Link 
Organisation Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine
Country Japan 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Research which has led to publications and grant awards.
Collaborator Contribution Research which has led to publications and grant awards.
Impact Numerous publications.
Description Osaka link 
Organisation Osaka University
Department Department of Ophthalmology
Country Japan 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Contributed to research into cell-cell interactions in an in vitro proxy of corneal development.
Collaborator Contribution Conducted collaborative research into cell-cell interactions in an in vitro proxy of corneal development.
Impact Two papers, one in Nature and one in Nature Protocols (Hayashi first author of both), plus collaboration on a new BBSRC project grant to start in Oct 2017
Start Year 2015
Description Rice collaboration 
Organisation Rice University
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Investigations of avian corneal development
Collaborator Contribution Lens removal surgery in chick eyes to influence corneal development
Impact None yet
Start Year 2018
Description UCI link 
Organisation University of California, Irvine
Department Department Ophthalmology
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Conducted laser confocal microscopy on developing chick cornea to understand cell-matrix interactions.
Collaborator Contribution Taught laser confocal microscopy for studies of developing chick cornea to understand cell-matrix interactions.
Impact Papers in preparation
Start Year 2016
Title Japanese Patent Application No 2014-529066 Non-Evasive Therapy for Corneal Endothelial Dysfunction 
Description The development of a cryoprobe for transcorneal freezing including study of corneal structure-function relationships and freeze-injury changes based on our knowledge of corneal biology. Japanese Patent Application granted under the Patent No 6104249 on 10 March 2017. Prof Andrew Quantock, inventor 
IP Reference WO2013034907 
Protection Patent granted
Year Protection Granted 2017
Licensed No
Impact Pending
Description BBC Wales 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview with Prof Quantock on BBC Radio Wales describing corneal research programme
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Doutch S4C 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Dr James Doutch, graduate of our group and current collaborator, appeared on an S4C science programme which focused on science at the Diamond synchrotron in Oxfordshire. James enthusiastically explained, in Welsh, the structural changes in the cornea when keratoconus develops.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Phil CITER presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Dr Phil Lewis, on behalf of the group, gave a presentation on the capabilities of 3D EM to an audience of academic tissue engineers
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description cornea stroma wikipedia 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The generation of a wikipedia page describing the biology of the corneal stroma
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015