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Fixing broken windows

PhD student Karl Brown has always found himself riding the wave of new scientific developments.image-tools (14)

“I first enrolled in 1995, the year that the world’s interest in stem cells exploded. It was a very exciting time,” Karl said.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, Karl became interested in molecular biology, particularly stem cells and their potential to repair damaged tissue following disease and trauma.

Following his bachelor’s degree, Karl completed an honours degree in medical science before enrolling in a masters by research at Australian National University.

The course provided him with a deep understanding of the processes that regulate cell differentiation and tissue development.

“A lot was happening in DNA research and I had a sense that the discoveries being made would change the field of medicine forever,” Karl said.

These days, Karl channels his passion for scientific enquiry into developing bioengineered corneal tissues to replace the damaged tissue in corneal transplant patients.

Corneal transplantation is a surgical procedure that replaces a damaged or diseased cornea with donated human corneal tissue. Donor corneas are removed from a recently deceased person before being stored in an eye bank for up to four weeks before being transplanted into a patient during surgery.

Karl and his colleagues aim to revolutionise this 100-year-old technique by ‘growing’ corneas in the lab using a patient’s own stem cells.

“Using a patient’s stem cells, we aim to grow the outer layer of cornea known as corneal epithelium,” Karl said.

“For the lab grown cells to be functional they must maintain the traits of the original cells,” he said.

“The lab grown cells are attached to a contact lens which is placed over a patient’s cornea. It’s hoped that the cells from the lens will attach themselves to the patient’s eye and replace the damaged cells.”

Karl expects that the technique, which could be introduced as early as 2012, will reap benefits for patients, ophthalmologists and healthcare systems alike.

“Engineered tissues will help to reduce waiting times, remove the need for anti-rejection drugs and will have the potential to treat a wider range of eye disease.”

Karl’s research is supported by grants from the Federal Government and the Ophthalmic Research Institute of Australia.