Bioengineered Eye Tissue to Help in Fight Against Global Corneal Blindness

In a world-first, a national consortium of clinical, scientific and governance experts, including the NSW Organ and Tissue Donation Service, will develop bioengineered eye tissue to treat corneal blindness.

Known as BIENCO, the ‘BIoENgineered Cornea’ initiative was officially launched by the NSW Minister for Health and Medical Research, Brad Hazzard, at an event hosted by the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District at the Sydney Eye Hospital on Thursday the 16th December.

The project, which is funded through the Medical Research Future Fund 2021 Frontier Health and Medical Research Initiative will address the global challenge of corneal blindness, which is the third most common cause of blindness among all age groups and the leading cause of unilateral blindness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Corneal transplantation currently relies upon deceased human donor corneal tissue. However, an acute global shortage of donor corneal tissue continues to prevent access to treatment. Worldwide, donor corneas are available for only 1 in 70 patients, with 53% of the world’s population being unable to access this tissue.

Professor Gerard Sutton, Project Lead, Corneal Specialist and Co-Medical Director of the NSW Tissue Bank and Director of the Sydney Eye Hospital Foundation Board, said that although access to services is an ongoing challenge, developing customised, easy to apply therapies is a realistic solution for at-risk populations, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

“These novel treatments address various stages of corneal disease, minimising dependency on donor tissue and will have a significant and direct impact on blindness in the world,” Professor Sutton said.

The national consortium will develop corneal replacement tissue which will provide multiple, customised therapies for corneal disease, with an emphasis on transportable therapies with extended shelf-life for use in remote communities for groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who have historically experienced difficulty accessing treatment.

“The success of this program will help millions of patients both nationally and globally to restore vision, improving their quality of life and reducing the social and economic burden associated with blindness,” Professor Sutton said.

The development of the bioengineered corneal tissue is only made possible by using generously donated human tissue. Australians are encouraged to register as organ and tissue donors at donatelife.gov.au

The national consortium includes University of Sydney, University of Wollongong, University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology, Centre for Eye Research Australia, and the NSW Organ & Tissue Donation Service.

Sydney Eye Hospital Foundation is proud to have allocated $480,000 to this project 2019-2021, thanks to our generous donor community.