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Past Winner
2008 Innovation Challenge Award

Mehrdad Rafat

Construction and Commercialization of an Implantable Artificial Cornea

University of Ottawa

Research into a new type of bioengineered hybrid material, conducted by Mehrdad Rafat as part of a multidisciplinary biomaterials team at the University of Ottawa, may lead to renewed sight for people with corneal blindness. His discoveries have earned him a third-place prize in NSERC's 2008 Innovation Challenge.

Millions of people around the world experience complete or partial blindness because their corneas fail and they do not have access to replacements. Donor corneas from deceased patients, the normal source of replacements, help only a scant one percent of those who need transplants. The artificial corneas (prostheses) currently on the market have various shortcomings that make them usable only as a last resort.

Dr. Rafat set out to solve this problem by developing a Hybrid Interpenetrating Polymer Network (HIPN) as a corneal substitute. The implant would be compatible with the host, provide clear vision, and avoid rejection by the body's immune system, as well as being affordable and implantable via standard surgical procedures. This ambitious goal called for taking advantage of the latest developments in tissue engineering and also the regenerative medicine approach of the university's biomaterials team.

His HIPN design process combined the use of natural materials that are normally found in the body, with synthetic polymers to tune the physical properties of the materials. The design process also looked at a number of variables simultaneously, rather than adopting the “one factor at a time” approach that is commonly used in biomaterials science. This made it possible to control the structure of materials at the microscopic level and to enhance features such as mechanical strength and elasticity while preserving biological properties and optical clarity.

Dr. Rafat's corneal implant resembles a contact lens, and can be molded or customized based on the needs of each patient. In contrast to the $7,000 price tag for currently available prosthetic implants, he estimates his product could be made for less than $1,000, an important factor in light of the fact that the bulk of people who need implants live in developing countries.

To date, Dr. Rafat has successfully tested his discovery in pigs, one step along the way to human trials. In addition to holding out hope for millions of blind people, his approach could be applied to engineering any number of other tissues for the human body.