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Aussie corneal engineering research earns major backing

A Melbourne researcher has received a major funding boost to progress development of a tissue-engineered corneal endothelium for transplant, which could help overcome a global shortage of corneal donations in future.

Dr Karl Brown, from the Centre for Eye Research Australia’s (CERA) Corneal Research Unit, recently secured DHB Foundation funding that will cover a four-year research fellowship.

The project, which will trial growing corneal endothelia in the lab using the patient’s own cells, could eliminate the need for donated corneas in transplant surgery and prevent transplant rejection from occurring in some patients.

According to CERA, cells of the corneal endothelium – a fine layer at the back of the cornea – help pump fluids out of the cornea and maintain transparency. When these cells fail because of ageing, trauma or disease – the cornea swells and becomes cloudy, leading to vision loss and blindness.

Brown is working closely with CERA’s principal investigator corneal research Associate Professor Mark Daniell to engineer the new approach.

In recent years they have collaborated with colleagues from the University of Melbourne to develop a hydrogel film which helps prevent damage to fragile donor corneal endothelium during transplant surgery.

The next phase of research builds on this technology by adding donor cells to the gel film to grow new corneal tissue. The technology could also enable cells from one donor to be grown into many transplants to help people in countries where there are major shortages of donor tissue.

“More than 10 million people around the world are missing out on sight-saving corneal transplants because they live in countries where there are major shortages of donor tissue,’’ Brown said.

“Eventually, the use of stem cell technology and tissue engineering could eliminate the need for donors to treat corneal endothelial disease allowing the treatment of millions of people worldwide currently blind because of a global shortage of donor corneas.”

Globally, almost five million people are blind in both eyes because of corneal disease, many because of the failure of their corneal endothelium cells. In Australia about half of all corneal transplant surgeries are performed because of problems with patients’ corneal endothelia.

In future, the researchers will also investigate whether corneal endothelial cells grown from induced pluripotent stem cells can be incorporated into the engineered corneal endothelium.

If successful, they believe this could create an almost unlimited supply of tissue for transplant.

“Our technology has the potential to restore the sight of millions of people worldwide and transform the treatment of corneal disease for patients who currently rely on donor tissue to treat their condition,” Brown said.