QUT joins research consortium to combat corneal blindness

The Australian Government has awarded $35 million to a national research consortium involving QUT, that is leading the charge against corneal blindness.

• QUT researchers contribute expertise in growing eye tissue cells

• 2000 Australians receive a donor corneal transplant every year

• BIENCO consortium’s work will help ensure enough corneal tissue to meet ageing population demands

(Caption: QUT research team. From top left: Professor Damien Harkin, Dr Natalie McKirdy, Dr Jenny Young. Inset top: Dr Adaeze Ekwe, Ceara McGowan).

The consortium known as BIENCO (BIENCOVision.com.au) is led by the University of Sydney and will develop bioengineered corneal tissue for the treatment of eye disease.

The funding is to be provided from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), via the Frontier Health and Medical Research Initiative, as recently announced by the Federal Minister for Health and Aged Care, the Hon Mark Butler MP.

The QUT node of BIENCO is led by Professor Damien Harkin from the School of Biomedical Sciences and the Centre for Vision and Eye Research.

Professor Harkin and his team have more than 20 years’ experience in growing eye tissue for clinical applications, including the first Australian clinical trial of corneal stem cell transplants in 2002.

“Having pioneered the treatment of patients in Australia using corneal stem cells, we are pleased to be able to apply our broader knowledge of corneal cell biology as foundation members of the BIENCO consortium,” Professor Harkin said.

As members of BIENCO, the QUT researchers will provide critical expertise in techniques required to isolate, cultivate and validate donor corneal cells, in preparation for manufacturing of bioengineered corneal tissue.

The cornea is the transparent tissue at the front of the eye that permits the entry of light and focuses it on the retina. Loss of corneal transparency therefore results in blindness.

Corneal blindness caused through disease or trauma affects an estimated 23 million people worldwide and more than 10 million people are currently on waiting lists to receive a donor corneal transplant.

“At present, there is only one donor cornea available globally for every 70 people requiring a corneal transplant,” Professor Harkin said.

“By increasing the number of corneal cells through cultivation in the laboratory and recombining them to form new tissues through use of innovative fabrication techniques, we estimate that at least 30 people can be treated using cells isolated from a single donor cornea.”

Professor Harkin said, “Approximately 2000 Australians receive a corneal transplant each year, and while we currently have sufficient corneal tissue donors to meet demand, the future is uncertain.

“The manufacturing activities of BIENCO will therefore help to ensure an adequate supply of corneal tissue to meet the projected needs of our aging population, while also supporting access to sight saving treatments in countries that lack access to donor corneas.”

BIENCO consortium leader Professor Gerard Sutton, from the University of Sydney’s Save Sight Institute and co-medical director of the NSW Tissue Bank, said BIENCO was launched in 2021 to develop individually tailored, cost-effective corneas for transplant.

“Thanks to our collaboration with consortium partners we’ve been able to rapidly develop word-first solutions for corneal blindness,” Professor Sutton said.

“We believe this is the largest grant in Australia’s history for eye research. This positions us as a global bioengineered tissue provider and is humbling recognition of the importance of our work and of the advancements that the BIENCO team have made.”

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