The Federal Government has awarded a staggering $35 million to BIENCO, a group of Australian researchers developing bioengineered corneal replacement tissue. The grant is believed to be the largest for eye research in the country’s history, with hopes that one donor could provide treatment for 30 people in future.
Sydney ophthalmologist Professor Gerard Sutton is leading the world-first consortium of clinical, scientific and governance experts from the University of Sydney, University of Wollongong, University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), and the NSW Organ & Tissue Donation Service (OTDS).
The bioengineered corneal replacement tissue under development incorporates cells and tissue donated by deceased donors, with the aim of addressing a global shortage of donated corneal tissue. In fact, corneal disease is reported to be the third most common form of blindness, with more than 10 million on a waiting list for a corneal transplant.
Sutton, from the University of Sydney, said the condition has a profound impact on people’s lives and presents a significant cost to the health system. The MRFF grant will propel BIENCO towards commercialisation of its operations.
“We believe this is the largest grant for eye research in Australia’s history,” said Sutton, corneal specialist at the University of Sydney’s Save Sight Institute and previous medical director of the NSW Tissue Bank, OTDS.
“BIENCO was launched in 2021 by this group of Australian researchers to create corneas that will prevent people becoming needlessly blind throughout the world. Thanks to our consortium partners, we’ve been able to rapidly develop word-first solutions for corneal blindness.
Professor Gordon Wallace, an esteemed innovator, educator and scientist at the forefront of health technologies at the University of Wollongong said, “this positions us as a global bioengineered tissue provider and is humbling recognition of the importance of our work, and the advancements the BIENCO team have made.”
It’s been reported that more than 2,000 Australians every year require a corneal tissue transplant to restore their vision; many whom are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“Currently, these transplants are reliant on tissue donated from deceased individuals. The developing world, including many countries in Africa, and Southeast Asia, has a chronic shortage of corneas due to a paucity of tissue banks, said Professor Mark Daniell, head of corneal research at CERA.
“BIENCO’s foundational work has already made significant progress in creating next-generation bioengineered materials that will significantly reduce the need for donated tissue and increase the speed and quality of care patients receive.”
The QUT BIENCO node, led by Professor Damien Harkin, will provide critical expertise in methods for the isolation, cultivation and validation of donor corneal cells.
“At present, there is only one donor cornea available globally to treat every 70 people requiring a corneal transplant,” he said. “Through laboratory cultivation we estimate that a single donor cornea could provide treatment for 30 people.”
Ms Danielle Fisher, general manager of the NSW Organ and Tissue Donation Service, said severe vision impairment and blindness has profound impacts, including on reduced quality-of-life, medical costs, costs of long-term care and costs due to lost productivity.
“Restoring sight not only benefits an individual person, it benefits their family and community,” she said. “It allows them to go back to their work, studies, and the community activities that they enjoy. It also reduces the burden on those caring for them. The BIENCO bioengineered products will create health economic benefits, in part by creating better patient outcomes.”
Professor Greg Qiao, who will lead the University of Melbourne node focusing on the synthetic substrates for the project, said: “Our ultimate goal is to develop the technology to produce many grafts from one donors’ tissue, to help alleviate the global shortage of donor corneas.”
Minister Mark Butler announced the grant on 6 February 2024, stating that the facility is a major step towards ensuring there is help available for those who need it.
‘These revolutionary treatments prove once again that Australian medical researchers are among the best in the world,” he said.
University of Sydney vice-chancellor and president, Professor Mark Scott, added that the funding is welcome recognition of the University of Sydney’s strategy for translational research with global impact.
“Corneal blindness is a global challenge, especially for our near neighbours in South-East Asia. This MRFF grant is welcome acknowledgement of the our commitment to research that tackles some of the world’s biggest problems and contributes to the common good, which underpins our 2032 strategy,” he said.
Vision 2020 Australia applauds grant
Vision 2020 Australia CEO Ms Iles said the national peak body for the eye health and vision care sector had prioritised advocacy to increase MRFF funding allocations for the eye health sector over recent years. She was pleased the government was recognising this.
She urged the Federal Government to continue with funding eye health initiatives, stating it is an area where rapid gains can be made.
“Ninety per cent of vision issues are preventable or treatable. With treatment now available for Australians with corneal disease it’s vital these services can be accessed by all Australians when they need it,” she said.