Eye surgeons have begun using an unusual material to repair damaged eyes, harnessing the healing properties of something that would normally become medical waste: the placenta.

Toronto East General Hospital is one of just three hospitals in Canada that is starting to collect placentas after planned caesarean sections so that eye surgeons at the hospital and around the province can use them for operations.

Surgeons use amnion, which comes from the inner layer of the amniotic membrane, the sac that surrounds the growing baby and placenta.

When used in eye surgery, the plastic-like tissue acts as a sort of scaffold over which other cells can grow to repair wounds.

Dr. Charlotte Wedge, the chief of ophthalmology at Toronto East General Hospital, says amnion acts much like a skin graft -- wounds heal faster, with less scarring.

“It has qualities that quiet inflammation,” Wedge says of amnion. “It represses new vessels from growing and causing inflammation and scarring… It seems to quiet everything,” she says.

Jacqueline Ramputh is one of the first patients to receive the treatment. She has a condition called pterygium, or surfer’s eye, a condition that typically affects people who spend a lot of time outdoors without sunglasses.

The condition caused a benign growth on the white -- or conjunctiva -- of Ramputh’s left eye. She has undergone three surgeries to remove the growth, which had begun to affect her vision.

Earlier this spring, she had a fourth surgery in which an amniotic membrane was placed over the wound left from the removal of the growth. It will take several weeks for her eye to heal, but doctors are hopeful that this time, it has been fixed for good.

Dr. Wedge says amniotic membranes can be used to treat several kinds of eye wounds and have opened up a new avenue of surgery.

“It is not just for growths,” she says. “It is for people who have chemical burns, any kind of burns, or infectious diseases that leave the cornea weakened or thinned.”

Wedge says each donated placenta produces about 45 to 50 pieces of amniotic membrane and can help about three dozen eye patients. And she says there is no shortage of mothers willing to donate their placentas.

New mother Lisa Halen says she was happy to donate to the program after the birth of her son Oliver in March.

“If I have something that could help someone, why wouldn't I want to give it?” she says.

Scientists are now looking into other possibilities for amnion, investigating whether it can repair tendons, blood vessels, and even damaged spinal cords.

"Using our own cells to heal ourselves is a huge idea, and more and more people are working on it and finding other uses for the tissue,” says Dr. Wedge.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip