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World-first consortium to fight corneal blindness launches in Sydney

Two leading Australian corneal surgeons are part of a new world-first national consortium that will develop bioengineered eye tissue to treat corneal blindness.

Launched on 16 December at Sydney Eye Hospital, the consortium, known as 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.

Professor Gerard Sutton, corneal specialist at the University of Sydney and co-medical director of the NSW Tissue Bank, is leading the project.

Prof Gerard Sutton.

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

According to current data, worldwide, donor corneas are available for only one in 70 patients, with 53% of the world’s population unable to access this tissue.

Sutton is joined by Professor Mark Daniell, senior consultant ophthalmic surgeon and researcher, from The University of Melbourne and Centre for Eye Research Australia.

Daniell 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,” he said.

The project also involves Professor Gordon Wallace (University of Wollongong), Ms Danielle Fisher (General Manager, NSW Organ and Tissue Donation Service), Professor Greg Qiao (The University of Melbourne), Professor Damien Harkin (Queensland University of Technology).

“This will significantly improve cost effectiveness and sustainability of corneal transplants in Australia and increase global access to vision-restoring corneal transplant surgery,” Wallace said.

Minister for Health and Medical Research, Mr Brad Hazzard, officially launched the project, which has been funded through the Medical Research Future Fund 2021 Frontier Health and Medical Research Initiative (MRFF).

Corneal transplant recipient, Associate Professor Mark Bowman, was also at the launch.

According to the Australian Organ and Tissue Authority (OTA), BIENCO will address the global challenge of corneal blindness, which is the third most common cause of blindness among all age groups and the leading cause of unilateral blindness among Indigenous Australians.

The project will have direct impact for remote eyecare delivery to rural and indigenous populations as well as addressing the shortage of corneal transplant tissue in the developing world.

Insight spoke with Sutton and Daniell earlier this year for an in-depth report on advances in treating corneal disease; it was the strongest-performing feature article of 2021.

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