Donor corneas conditioned with DNA before being transplanted into new eyes are already actively contributing to their own success in experimental animals such as sheep.
The DNA is inserted into the cells of the cornea after it has been harvested. Then, following implantation, it produces proteins that help overcome immunological rejection.
This is one of many strands of research aimed at increasing the success rates of corneal transplants and other eye disease treatments undertaken by Prof Keryn Williams at Flinders University.
If such gene therapy can be developed for human corneal transplants, it will not only increase success rates, but also free recipients of the need to take drugs all their lives to suppress rejection. “I hope this will become a ‘one-stop-shop’ against rejection,” says Keryn, who is testing which combinations of genes are most effective.
Keryn is also creating drugs to act against rejection incorporating fragments of genetically engineered antibodies. But getting drugs into the cornea is difficult—injected drugs often do not reach it. So Keryn is looking at two approaches; delivering her antibody-fragment drugs using eye-drops rather than injection or, in a separate project, developing a porous silicon biomaterial to apply drugs and cells to the eye.
“Australia is a leader in corneal transplant research,” says Keryn, “helped by the clinical database of 23,000 cases in the Australian Corneal Graft Registry.” About 1200 corneal transplants are done each year, and the overall success rate 10 years after surgery is 62 per cent.
Keryn’s pivotal work in eye health recently earned her a major National Health and Medical Research Council Fellowship.