An international consortium of scientific centers, coordinated by the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG) of Barcelona, is developing a method to ‘resurrect’ human eyes of deceased and keep them alive for a month to be able to investigate in them new treatments for ocular degeneration.
Coordinated by Pia Cosma, a CRG researcher, the consortium has devised a device that will resuscitate the eyes of deceased donors creating artificial blood to provide oxygen and nutrients to cells, reactivate the activity of nerve cells and restore the total function of the eye. They will also develop the artificial vitreous humor that will maintain the eye pressure of the eye.
As explained by Cosma, current technology only allows the eyes to be kept at 4ºC for a period of 48 hours, before its irreversible degradation, which limits its use for experiments, especially to test the effectiveness of new drugs and treatments. Although there are advances in human organoids (tissues that grow in a Petri dish) that mimic the function of the eye, they fail to encapsulate the physiological complexity of the organ, such as its immune, vascular and metabolic systems.
So by reviving the eyes, scientists want to avoid these limitations and keep them healthy for at least a month, which help evaluate the efficacy, efficiency and safety of new therapies regenerative and drug testing.
Scientists also highlight that wearing resurrected eyes can also circumvent various ethical restrictions of preclinical animal testingas well as human experimentation.
The device for resuscitating the eyes of the deceased, called the ECaBox, will be shaped like a transparent cube that will mimic the conditions of the living human eye, maintaining its temperature and pH levels, and at the same time it will prevent blood clots from forming and remove metabolic waste and toxins.
The project has received 3.5 million euros from the European Union’s FET-OPEN research program, which funds new cutting-edge technologies and, in this case, to boost research to treat visual impairment, which affects more than 250 million people worldwide, where 36 million people live with blindness, a number that is expected to grow with the aging of the population.
“There are a lot of potential new treatments and therapies for eye damage and vision loss, but the sheer cost of a clinical trial may mean they never get to market,” said Pia Cosma, research professor, head of group in the (CRG) and project coordinator. “Our new method can greatly improve preclinical validation steps for these treatments, supporting the selection of a larger number of candidates and helping promising drugs escape from the ‘valley of death’ caused by cost-benefit analyzes of the pharmaceutical industry, “he said.
Scientists plan that a preliminary prototype of the device will be ready by the end of 2023 and that, once completed, it will be used to test the retinal regenerative therapies developed at the CRG itself.
“A theory developed in the late 1990s suggests that the fusion of cells of different types may result in new hybrid cells that can differentiate into specialized retinal cells”, explained Pia Cosma. “The technology to test how this works in practice has been limited. We will use this new device to explore this approach for the first time in human eyes, a therapeutic approach that we are leading at CRG,” he said.
ECaBox will be created using a interdisciplinary collaboration between seven research centers. In Barcelona, the project will be coordinated by Pia Cosma at the CRG, in collaboration with scientific teams at two other Catalan centers: one led by Ricardo Casaroli at the University of Barcelona, and the other led by Nuria Montserrat at the Institute of Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC).
The consortium’s other international collaborators are King’s College London (UK), the Association for the Advancement of Cell-Based Tissue Engineering, Technologies and Therapies (Portugal), AFERETICA (Italy) and Bar-Ilan University (Israel) .
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