$35M for life-changing corneal blindness research

6 February 2024
Medical Research Futures Fund supports commercialisation
University of Sydney-led BIENCO consortium has received $35 million from the Australian Government to commercialise their world-leading research into treatments for corneal blindness.
A photo of a gloved hand holding a specimen jar with a pale orange liquid, suspended within is an artificial cornea

Artificial cornea specimen developed by the BIENCO consortium. Image credit: Stefanie Zingsheim, University of Sydney

The Australian Government has awarded $35 million to BIENCO, a group of researchers leading the charge against corneal blindness which affects an estimated 23 million people worldwide.  

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 (QUT), the Centre for Eye Research Australia, and the NSW Organ & Tissue Donation Service (OTDS). It is developing a bioengineered corneal replacement tissue by incorporating cells and tissue generously donated by deceased donors.

Corneal disease is the third most common form of blindness and over 10 million are on a waiting list for a corneal transplant.

Portrait photo of Professor Gerard Sutton in a lab at the Save Sight Institute, wearing a grey suit jacket with arms crossed.

Professor Gerard Sutton. Image credit: Stefanie Zingsheim, University of Sydney

BIENCO program lead Professor Gerard 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.

“BIENCO was launched in 2021 by this group of Australian researchers to create corneas that will prevent people becoming needlessly blind throughout the world," said Professor Sutton, corneal specialist at the University of Sydney's Save Sight Institute and previous medical director of the NSW Tissue Bank, OTDS.

"Thanks to our consortium partners, we’ve been able to rapidly develop word-first solutions for corneal blindness. We believe this is the largest grant for eye research in Australia’s history."

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.”

Over 2000 Australians every year require a corneal tissue transplant to restore their vision. Many of these 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. Through laboratory cultivation we estimate that a single donor cornea could provide treatment for 30 people” said Professor Harkin. 

Photo of BIENCO program lead Professor Gerard Sutton at the Save Sight Institute performing an eye exam

Image credit: Stefanie Zingsheim, University of Sydney

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,” Ms Fisher 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 today, saying, “This 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.”

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Mark Scott AO, 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,” said Professor Scott.

University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Emma Johnston welcomed the funding, which will propel BIENCO to commercialisation.

"BIENCO joins the likes of other successful University of Sydney biomedical ventures such as Kinoxis Therapeutics, a biotechnology company developing first in class therapeutics to address the growing need for effective treatments for substance use disorders and social dysfunction in neurological and psychiatric disorders; and Elastagen, a company founded in 2005 by University of Sydney McCaughey Chair of Biochemistry, Professor Anthony Weiss AM, to manufacture a protein called tropoelastin to treat severe burns and chronic wounds.

“This MRFF grant will support BIENCO in commercialising its operations and help the thousands of Australians who need a corneal transplant every year.”

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