Prof Gerard Sutton’s BIENCO consortium has been awarded a landmark research grant by the Australian Government to manufacture its bioengineered corneas for global distribution, potentially restoring sight to millions.

BIENCO is an Australian consortium of experts from leading institutions around the country – the University of Sydney, University of Wollongong, University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology, Centre for Eye Research Australia and the NSW Organ & Tissue Donation Service.

Its world-first technology produces full-thickness corneal tissue for transplantation, bypassing the need for corneas from deceased donors.

Now, a $35 million grant from the Medical Research Future Fund will give a significant boost to the consortium’s next goal: commercial production and distribution of its bioengineered corneas to the millions of people waiting for a corneal transplant in Australia and around the world.

‘We believe this is the largest grant for eye research in Australia’s history,’ says Prof Sutton.

‘The funds will go towards building a facility in Sydney specifically designed for bioengineered corneas. Our aim is to start manufacturing and distributing these corneas within the next three to four years,’ he says.

Early FVF research support was crucial

Prof Sutton is also grateful for the earlier research support his team received, which has been instrumental in allowing them to conduct key research and get to where they are today.

One such grant came from Vision Eye Institute’s not-for-profit research charity, Future Vision Foundation, with the bioengineered cornea being one of 11 projects to receive funding during the inaugural round of grants in 2022.

‘This allowed us to complete a critical step in order to progress further – extracting pure collagen from eye tissue normally thrown out after routine surgery and develop ways to use this collagen as the main ingredient in bioengineered corneal layers,’ he says.

‘FVF is a really important initiative by Vision Eye Institute to help with some of the initial funding into research projects, which can be really difficult to get.’

‘The FVF grant, along with other small grants and funding that we’ve received, helped get a few runs on the board for us to then apply for the larger ones like the MRFF grant.’

View the FVF research project >

A journey that began 25 years ago

Corneal damage from injury or injection is the third most common cause of blindness worldwide.

Although it can be successfully treated with a corneal transplant, demand for donor tissue substantially exceeds supply – globally, just one donor is available for every 70 people on the waitlist.

In contrast, a single bioengineered cornea is expected to benefit 30 people.

The novel idea came about soon after Prof Sutton began volunteering in Cambodia and Myanmar 25 years ago. ‘Corneal blindness is a huge problem in these countries, resulting from disease and shrapnel injuries, and further cripples already-struggling individuals, families and communities.

‘We could only help a very small few – it was truly heartbreaking to have to turn so many people away,’ he says.

The bigger picture is BIG

‘Once our dedicated facility in Sydney is up and running, we can deliver bioengineered corneas to the communities that need them and should start see a meaningful reduction in corneal blindness rates,’ says Prof Sutton.

There will also be a flow-on effect that goes far beyond the individual, he says. ‘By actively participating in society again, people who have had their vision restored can contribute to their family and community and, importantly, support the local economy.

‘Now, think of that scenario millions of times over.’


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