These days, across the Earth, there are perhaps 45 million blind people. Of those, around 9 million may be blind because of corneal problems.
The numbers were different back in the 1960s, but the problem was not — people were suffering from acute cornea damage, and there was no contemporary way to restore their sight. It was then that an Italian eye surgeon named Benedetto Strampelli decided to try new techniques to help people who had no other surgical options.
He knew that damaged eyes don't produce enough tears to support a new cornea, leaving the tissue rough, dry and with an almost skinlike texture. He also knew that a simple plastic lens typically wouldn't do the trick because the body often rejects foreign objects, making synthetic replacements difficult or impossible.
The solution, he thought, was to embed a see-through, plastic cylinder into the body's own tissues. The resulting structure would be strong, scratch-resistant and made up of your own DNA, lowering the possibility of rejection.
One of the biggest challenges was finding a way to create a long-term bond between living tissue and the plastic lens. That meant first locating an appropriate foundation for a lens. Strampelli thought that perhaps most suitable building block would be a hard substance made to last in a warm, mucous-filled environment like the eye.
A tooth, he thought, might be the perfect candidate. So he began exploring the idea of extracting a tooth and integrating it with a lens, and then implanting the entire contraption into a blind eye, essentially creating an artificial window.
His plans worked well enough to inspire other doctors to try the technique. One of his protégés was Giancarlo Falcinelli, who refined and simplified the concept over the course of hundreds of repetitions to make it easier to perform, with better and longer-lasting results.
Falcinelli's procedure is currently regarded as the most effective way to rebuild otherwise unsalvageable corneas (called end-stagecorneal blindness) and is called modified osteo-odonto-keratoprothesis (MOOKP).