Gordon Wallace smiling

BIENCO awarded $35m to address global corneal blindness

BIENCO awarded $35m to address global corneal blindness

UOW a key partner in world-first consortium of experts

The Australian Government’s Medical Research Futures Fund (MRFF) has awarded $35 million to BIENCO, a world-first consortium of clinical, scientific and governance experts, to address the global challenge of corneal blindness, with the University of Wollongong (UOW) involved as a key partner.

Corneal blindness affects an estimated 23 million people worldwide, with more than 10 million on waiting lists for a corneal transplant. It is the third most common cause of blindness globally. To bridge this gap, BIENCO brings together experts from University of Sydney and UOW as well as the University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology, the Centre for Eye Research Australia and the NSW Organ & Tissue Donation Service.

BIENCO builds on UOW’s corneal research and will develop individually tailored cost-effective bioengineered corneas, capable of addressing global blindness by improving access to corneal grafts donated by deceased donors. UOW’s Distinguished Professor Gordon Wallace (pictured above) will help steer BIENCO as one of its leads to help govern the consortium and support its various projects for success.

“The cornea is an exquisite biological structure with three different cell types strategically aligned in a 3D biomaterial matrix. We now propose to bioengineer this structure,” said Professor Wallace.

“Success here will mean the realisation of a manufacturing line for Australia’s first bioengineered product for implant. It will require all of the skills of all of the partners to get us there.”

Professor Gerard Sutton, University of Sydney's BIENCO lead and corneal specialist at the Save Sight Institute as well as co-medical director of the NSW Tissue Bank, explained how the condition has greatly impacted people’s lives.

“BIENCO was launched in 2021 to develop individually tailored corneas that are cost effective. Thanks to our partnership with the NSW Organ & Tissue Donation Service, we’ve been able to rapidly develop world-first solutions for corneal blindness that are ready to be put into market to help patients in Australia and around the world,” said Professor Sutton.

“We believe this is the largest grant in Australia’s history for eye research. 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.” 

General Manager of the NSW Organ and Tissue Donation Service, Danielle Fisher, described the impact severe vision impairment and blindness can have on people’s lives, such as a reduced quality of life as well as various ongoing medical expenses.

“Restoring sight not only benefits an individual person, it benefits their family and community. 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,” Ms Fisher said.

“There aren’t enough donors globally to address the need for transplant. So, with a lot of hard work and combined expertise, we are on track to bring the world’s first full- thickness bio-engineered cornea.

“Working in true collaboration, ensures the team can be greater than the sum of its parts. This is the only way to solve complex problems, like global blindness’ Ms Fisher said.

“Our work will enable us to produce the cells for 3D bio-engineered corneas from one donated cornea.”