Injuries to the surface of the eye – as a result of burns, infections, inflammation, trauma and surgery – are a leading cause of sight loss. Despite this, there are few therapeutic options to modify, minimise or reverse scarring to maintain corneal transparency and visual function, and these are not always effective. With a global prevalence of 5.1%, the incidence of visual loss is around eight million people per year – accounting for around £150 billion in annual healthcare spending. As such, the WHO has made this a priority area programme to prevent world-wide blindness.
Birmingham hosts the largest medical device cluster in the UK with an impressive and extensive infrastructure in addition to world class hospital trusts. Specialist facilities including the Medical Device Testing and Evaluation Centre (MD-TEC) and the NIHR Surgical Reconstruction and Microbiology Research Centre (SRMRC) provide academics, clinicians and industry with a perfect environment to bring multi-disciplinary teams together and rapidly mature their emerging technologies.
In this case, bringing together neurosciences and ophthalmology expertise with Professor Liam Grover’s healthcare technologies team led to an important discovery – that combining decorin and collagen results in enhanced anti-scarring bioactivities. The team found that as a result, scarless wound healing was possible thanks to a new microenvironment that enables anti-fibrotic and anti-inflammatory factors. In addition, clinician and/or patient-reported visual outcomes were improved.
This combination of academic, clinical and technological expertise secured over £5million of internal and external funding from MRC, Wellcome Trust and NIHR to accelerate development of a synthetic, transparent, anti-scarring eye drop for the management of patients at risk of corneal scarring.
We are currently leading the first in-human clinical trial to assess the treatment’s safety and efficacy in patients with microbial keratitis. This will create a unique collaboration between the University of Birmingham, Birmingham and Midland Eye Centre, Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham. The trial will also help move the technology along the translational pathway towards regulatory approvals and commercial realisation – already, the research team has consulted with patients, practitioners and regulatory bodies, and potential commercial partners have registered their interest in the technology.
The anti-scarring eye drop will not only have significant positive impacts for patients, but also socio-economic impacts – patients with ocular damage will carry a reduced cost-of-treatment burden as the eye drop may be self-administered in a home or community setting, negating the need for prolonged hospitalisation and clinic attendance. In the not too distant future, patients will be able to access this revolutionary sight-saving eye drop to prevent the devastating consequences of corneal damage.