A new artificial organ gives a new meaning to the phrase “making eyes.”


For the first time, researchers used human cells to build a model of the surface of the eye that’s equipped with a fake eyelid that mimics blinking. This synthetic eye could be used to study and test treatments for eye diseases, researchers reported February 16 in a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


artificial eye

BLINK OF AN EYE This artificial eye is made of corneal cells (dark blue) surrounded by a ring of conjunctival cells (white), grown on a contact lens‒like surface. The device “blinks” when a hydrogel film slides over a channel containing artificial tears (black) and spreads the liquid over the cells.


Dan Huh, a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues grew a ring of conjunctival cells — tissue that covers the white part of the eye — around a circle of corneal cells on a contact lens‒shaped platform. A faux eyelid made of a thin hydrogel film covers and uncovers the eye to spread tear fluid over the cells.


This artificial eye surface could help researchers study dry eye disease, a condition that affects an estimated 16 million adults in the United States. People with dry eye disease don’t produce enough tears or fail to make tears with the proper chemical composition to keep their eyes hydrated. Huh’s team could give the organ the symptoms of dry eye disease by making it blink less frequently, so the device could be used to test the safety and effectiveness of new eye drop medications.


This kind of artificial organ may also be used to study other eye injuries, like corneal ulcers, Huh said.