University joins world-first consortium to fight global blindness

Macro eye photo
The consortium aims to help millions of patients access treatment to restore vision and improve their quality of life.

Australian leaders in corneal bioengineering have collaborated to form BIENCO, a consortium to develop bioengineered eye tissue to treat corneal blindness.

It will develop individually tailored, superior corneas that are cost effective and can address significant global blindness and shortage of corneas. The consortium will also provide early treatment to prevent corneal blindness and speed up recovery from laser eye surgery.

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.

Launched by NSW Minister for Health and Medical Research Brad Hazzard, BIENCO has received grant funding from the Australian Government to take on the global challenge of corneal blindness, the third most common cause of blindness in the world.

Project Lead, Corneal Specialist at the University of Sydney and Co-Medical Director of the NSW Tissue Bank, Professor Gerard Sutton said corneal disease and blindness affects about 23 million people across the globe.

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

BIENCO will bioengineer a total cornea as well as partial thickness grafts for transplant, reducing the amount of donor tissue required.

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

University of Melbourne and the Centre for Eye Research’s Professor Mark 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,” Professor Daniell said.

University of Melbourne Professor Greg Qiao said: “This project is an excellent demonstration of engineers working together with medical practitioners to provide new solutions for fighting corneal blindness”.

The success of this program will help millions of patients both nationally and globally to restore vision, Queensland University of Technology Professor Damien Harkin said.

“This will improve their quality of life as well as reducing the social and economic burden associated with blindness.”

Worldwide, donor corneas are available for only 1 in 70 patients, with 53 per cent of the world’s population unable to access this tissue.

“BIENCO is reinventing collaboration in research and health service delivery,” Danielle Fisher, Project Governance Lead and General Manager of the NSW Organ and Tissue Donation Service said.

“Pushing through historical barriers between institutions and working together as a team, researchers and collaborators are able to achieve a lot more.”

“The BIENCO Team is incredibly proud of each of our home consortium organisations and has developed this new collaborative identity in recognition that we are aiming for a shared goal that would not be possible to achieve simply by the sum of our parts.”

Mr Hazzard said quality medical research plays a vital role in our health system, and that “BIENCO will help millions of patients here and across the globe to access treatment that restores vision and improves their quality of life.”