The scientists have found that the healthy cornea has a unique fibrous collagen structure. However, in a disorder called keratoconus, in which the center of the eyeball starts to bulge out in a cone shape, causing severe vision disturbance, this structure breaks down. Surgery can correct keratoconus, but it entails risks.
“The significance of this research is that, with a greater understanding of the structure of the cornea at the molecular level, we are able to suggest methods for improving corneal surgery by increasing our understanding of how physical disruption of the cornea’s structure can lead to refractive changes,” Meek said.
Another benefit of the work, he added, is that it’s a step toward developing an artificial cornea that could satisfy the huge demand for donor corneas in many parts of the world.
“In theory, it would take months to scan a single cornea using a conventional laboratory source,” Meek explained, “but due to the high intensity of Diamond’s X-rays, a cornea can be scanned in just a few hours. In addition, because synchrotron X-rays can be focused to a tiny spot, we can generate more detailed maps of corneal structure than ever before. In 12 months time at Diamond, the achievable spot size on the non-crystalline diffraction beamline will be in the order of 10 microns, which is less than a 10th the size of a human hair.
“This means that, within a few years, the work will be at a stage where it can feed into the development of artificial biological corneal constructs that mimic the remarkable natural properties of this extraordinary tissue.”