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  • Writer's pictureSimone Williams

Eyes on the Prize

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

FAMU research team reflects on being the first in the U.S. to print a human cornea

(Published in A&M magazine)

If you’ve ever had the chance to tour Florida A&M University, odds are you probably missed the Dyson Pharmacy Building. The building itself is visually unremarkable – practically a relic overlooking an impressively modern College of Pharmacy building just a few feet down the hill; however, the work done inside is some of the most remarkable in the world. It was here that Mandip Sachdeva, Ph.D., and his research assistants Shallu Kutlehria and Paul Dinh became the first people in the United States to 3D print a human cornea.

The team’s design improves on British designs released in May by more accurately mirroring the collagen concentrations found in a human eye. Additionally, the team has developed a process that allows corneas to be printed faster and with greater outputs.

This was undoubtedly the dream team of pharmaceutical research. In his 26 years of teaching at FAMU, Sachdeva has acquired more than $25 million in grants from such organizations as the Department of Defense, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes of Health and the Florida Department of Health.

With these funds, Sachdeva has been able to make significant contributions to the knowledge of drug delivery through various membranes of the body in relation to lung cancer, triple-negative breast cancer and topical delivery of neuropeptides.

Sachdeva was then joined by some top-notch research students. Kutlehria is a graduate student in the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences whose knowledge of cells created the optimal bio ink for the corneas to be printed. Dinh is a senior biological sciences major who, in true “Gen Z” fashion, used his digital prowess to become a bona fide expert in 3D printing.

In this capitalist society, a natural question always arises from any scientific discovery: How much money will this make? However, Sachdeva has little interest in the means of monetizing these discoveries and sees the real prize as being a chance to make a major impact on the world.

“I believe that money is secondary,” Sachdeva said. “The goal is to do something in my lifetime that benefits human welfare.”

Dinh shares a similar sentiment: “One of the best things I think can come out of technology is giving people who are underprivileged access to health care that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” he said.

Born in Hanoi, Vietnam, Dinh moved to Tallahassee as an infant. He learned about FAMU via his friends’ parents who were professors in Tallahassee and had his first experience with research in 10th grade when he worked with Ramesh Katam Ph.D., for the Undergraduates Experience. Now, as an undergraduate, Dinh has contributed to one of the most groundbreaking scientific developments of our time.

However, at the same time Dinh was rising, his grandfather was losing his battle to lung cancer back in Vietnam. Dinh explained how this enlightened him to the realities of health care disparities between nations and became his call to action in the field of pharmaceutical sciences.

“It’s just such a drastic difference between the health care available here and in Vietnam. Seeing him go through the chemo made me feel like I had some sort of duty to contribute in some way.”

One major cause for these disparities is the limited supply of necessary resources, which in turn drives up expense. With a 98-percent success rate, cornea transplants are among the most successful tissue transplants. However, Dinh explained that due to a lack of donors, there is only one cornea available for every 70 needed worldwide.

In the end, this research has the possibility to help minimize some of these disparities by increasing supply. Additionally, printed corneas can increase supply to drug testing sites, allowing for more rapid testing and virtual elimination of animal testing in the industry.

After making a nationally applauded scientific breakthrough, most people would be inclined to take a break to bask in the glow of their success. However, widespread news of the team’s achievements has resulted in an onslaught of requests for new projects. Recently, the team has been contacted to print a muscle tendon, a retina, tumor scaffold and an apparatus for dental drug delivery.

Still, Sachdeva and Dinh say they are happy about the attention this research has brought to FAMU; they hope that all the exposure will help attract even more hardworking students to FAMU’s pharmacy program.

“The biggest desire is to recruit more students to FAMU,” Sachdeva said, “So this work can be moved forward. Science keeps changing so you should not rest on the laurels of yesterday. Plan for the future. So, the biggest challenge is to recruit more students.”

In fact, the turnover of students just comes with the territory of doing research at a University, he said. Students graduate and move on to the next chapter of their lives. But when this happens, there must be new students to pick up the baton. Sachdeva sees this as an opportunity for something great.

"[It is] good in the sense that you get new blood with new ideas," said Sachdeva, "but you have to make sure that the knowledge is transferred from one person to the second. That is why it's important to get new students in - so they can overlap and learn from each other."

"People already know our lab very well across the nation," Sachdeva continued. "People from this lab have gone to great places, but this has given us more visibility and more credibility [to prove] that FAMU is doing really good work."

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