New government-backed mission for ‘whole eye transplantation’

whole eye transplant ARPA-H


US government agency Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) has announced the Transplantation of Human Eye Allografts (THEA) program, which intends to transplant whole human eyes to restore vision for the blind and visually impaired.

The goal of the program is to restore vision in people blinded by conditions affecting the retina and optic nerve by transplanting the whole donor eye and reconnecting the nerves, muscles, and blood vessels to the brain.

THEA will leverage emerging microsurgical techniques, coupled with genetic and cell-based therapies, to preserve or regrow nerves from the eye to the brain, the agency said in a statement.

ARPA-H said these regenerative solutions could prevent degenerative blindness and are a critical step towards successful whole eye transplantation to restore vision. The agency is collaborating with academia and industry to accelerate these discoveries with unique tools not yet applied to ocular surgery.

“For centuries, doctors have theorised eye transplantation to repair vision without success. However, very recent discoveries in vision science and neuroscience may now help solve the hurdles of reattaching the donor eye’s optic nerve to the recipient,” ARPA-H THEA program manager Dr Calvin Roberts said.

“With THEA, we aim to revolutionise the reconnection of nerves to the brain and make these advancements accessible in the United States and around the globe, with the ambition to offer an alternative to lifelong blindness.”

THEA intends to test and evaluate the best therapies to repair damaged nerves, to maintain critical structures in the eye, such as the retina and optic nerve viable after damage, and to prevent postoperative inflammation or rejection.

Through a forthcoming Innovative Solutions Opening, THEA will request proposals focused on three technical areas:
1. retrieval of donor eyes and maintenance of the health of donor eyes until transplantation;
2. optic nerve repair and regeneration; and
3. surgical procedures, post-operative care, and functional assessment.

“While it has been nearly 60 years since the first successful human heart transplant, we have not been able to use similar approaches to restore a person’s sight, and that’s what makes this an ARPA-hard problem to solve,” ARPA-H director Ms Renee Wegrzyn, said.

“Through THEA, we’re seeking to develop the next breakthroughs in transplantation, preservation, and neuroscience to address the challenge: ‘What if we could restore vision to those who are blind?’”

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