World-first consortium to fight global corneal blindness

In a world first, Australian leaders in corneal bioengineering have collaborated to form BIENCO, a consortium that will develop bioengineered eye tissue to treat corneal blindness.

BIENCO, which is being launched by Minister for Health and Medical Research Brad Hazzard, has received grant funding from the Australian Government through the Medical Research Future Fund 2021 Frontier Health and Medical Research Initiative. It will take on the global challenge of corneal blindness, the third most common cause of blindness in the world.

BIENCO will develop individually tailored, superior corneas that are cost effective and can address the significant global blindness and shortage of corneas. It will also provide early treatment to prevent corneal blindness and speed recovery from laser eye surgery.

Professor Gerard Sutton, project lead, corneal specialist at the University of Sydney’s Save Sight Institute and co-medical director of the NSW Tissue Bank said corneal disease and blindness affects about 23 million people across the globe.

“Corneal transplantation currently relies upon deceased human donor corneal tissue,” Professor Sutton said. “However, an acute global shortage of donor corneal tissue continues to prevent access to treatment.”

Mr Hazzard said quality medical research plays a vital role in our health system.

“BIENCO will help millions of patients here and across the globe to access treatment that restores vision, and improves their quality of life,” Mr Hazzard said.

BIENCO will bioengineer a total cornea as well as partial thickness grafts for transplant, reducing the amount of donor tissue required.

Professor Gordon Wallace from the University of Wollongong said: “This will significantly improve cost effectiveness and sustainability of corneal transplants in Australia and increase global access to vision-restoring corneal transplant surgery.”

Professor Mark Daniell from the University of Melbourne and the Centre for Eye Research said BIENCO will translate a suite of bioengineered corneal treatments from the bench to the bedside.

“It will improve targeted corneal interventions across the lifespan of patients and across the globe,” Professor Daniell said.

Professor Greg Qiao from The University of Melbourne said: “This project is an excellent demonstration of engineers working together with medical practitioners to provide new solutions for fighting corneal blindness”.

The success of this program will help millions of patients both nationally and globally to restore vision, Professor Damien Harkin from Queensland University of Technology said. “This will improve their quality of life as well as reducing the social and economic burden associated with blindness.”

Worldwide, donor corneas are available for only 1 in 70 patients, with 53 per cent of the world’s population unable to access this tissue.

BIENCO is a collaboration between the University of Sydney, University of Wollongong, University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology, Centre for Eye Research Australia, and the NSW Organ and Tissue Donation Service.

“BIENCO is reinventing collaboration in research and health service delivery,” said Danielle Fisher, project governance lead and general manager of the NSW Organ and Tissue Donation Service. “Pushing through historical barriers between institutions and working together as a team, researchers and collaborators are able to achieve a lot more.

“The BIENCO Team is incredibly proud of each of our home consortium organisations and has developed this new collaborative identity in recognition that we are aiming for a shared goal that would not be possible to achieve simply by the sum of our parts.”

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.

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