Leading the fight against global corneal blindness

BIENCO is a world first consortium of clinical, scientific and governance experts from the University of Sydney, University of Wollongong, University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, and the NSW Organ & Tissue Donation Service. They are creating corneal replacement tissue by incorporating cells and tissue generously donated by deceased donors. The project is called Australian Corneal Bioengineering: Novel Therapies to Fight Blindness and aims to improve the quality of life of patients nationally and globally, and reduce the social and economic burden associated with blindness.

The case for funding

Corneal disease is a condition that affects the cornea, the clear window at the front of the eye. It is the third most common cause of blindness among all age groups and the leading cause of unilateral (affecting one eye) blindness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Corneal transplantation currently relies on human donor corneal tissue; however, an acute global shortage of tissue means it is only available for approximately one in 70 patients. Fifty three percent of the world’s population are unable to access tissue at all.

Donor impact

By developing bioengineered eye tissue, BIENCO hopes to minimise dependency on tissue from deceased donors and provide multiple, customised therapies for corneal disease. There will be an emphasis on transportable therapies with extended shelf-life for use in remote communities, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Aside from developing treatments that prevent blindness, this research program aims to develop a bioengineered cornea that can reduce waiting times and costs, as well as free up healthcare resources.

The early work of BIENCO has been funded through the generous donations to Sydney Eye Hospital Foundation and has recently received significant funding through the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund 2021 (MRFF) Frontier Health and Medical Research Initiative.

“We have been fortunate to have had the support and encouragement from the Sydney Eye Hospital Foundation. Without the Foundation our research would not be where it is today.” – Professor Gerard Sutton, Ophthalmologist and Co-Medical Director of the NSW Tissue Bank, and project lead.

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