Lions Eye Institute for Transplant and Research makes research a priority

March 1, 2012
Beth Thomas Hertz

For corneal researchers, gaining access to any sizable amount of high quality tissue has long been a challenge.

Key Points

Tampa, FL-For corneal researchers, gaining access to any sizable amount of high-quality tissue has long been a challenge. All too often, they have received tissue from eye banks that was deemed inappropriate for transplantation for one reason or another.

The Lions Eye Institute for Transplant and Research (LEITR) decided several years ago to change that paradigm, however. It now divides its donor tissue from about 6,000 eyes per year equally between patient transplantation and research. The non-profit institute also built facilities adjacent to its eye bank in 2009 where researchers can utilize that tissue to its fullest extent, making it the only combined eye bank and ocular research center in the world.

"Before this, no one was actively gathering quality research tissue," said Jason K. Woody, president and chief executive officer of the institute. "It was hard for researchers to get enough samples to facilitate consistent studies. Just getting five or six could take months."

"We are now able to provide consistent volumes to researchers, often within 4 to 6 hours of the patient's death," Woody said.

"This fresher tissue has better cell structures that allow researchers to replicate real conditions far better than tissue that is even 24 to 36 hours old."

Because Tampa, FL, has a large population of senior citizens, many donor eyes have the diseases that researchers are most eager to study, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and retinitis pigmentosa.

Researchers from around the world come and use the research facilities and donor tissue to advance their work more quickly than they can at their regular base. The 12,000-squarefoot research center (about 4,000 square feet are currently built) has three individual stateof-the-art laboratories and two sleeping suites (two more are planned), which Woody compared with large hotel rooms that let researchers stay close to their work at all times.

"They never need to leave," he said. "If tissue becomes available at 2 a.m., they [can be] called to their lab to work with it. When they are done, they can go back to sleep for a few hours."

Researchers may obtain whole globes, corneas, lenses, sclera, retinas/retinal pigment epitheliums, trabecular meshwork, optic nerves, endothelial cells, and other tissues from healthy or diseased eyes.

Since researchers are assigned their own lab for the duration of their visit (usually about a week), their work is undisturbed while they take breaks.

"Sometimes we can provide them seven sets of donor tissue in 24 hours," Woody said. "That could take months anywhere else."

The LEITR research facility was built adjacent to the organization's eye bank, which is the largest eye bank in the world. Researchers from around the world have come to use the center, including from Karolinska Institute/ St. Eriks Eye Hospital (Stockholm), and Singapore National Eye Centre, as well as from academic centers such as Duke University, Emory University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Arizona.

Ophthalmic companies, including iScience, have utilized the facilities as well.

Researchers are charged a processing fee for the tissue and another fee for use of the facilities. The labs are equipped with the basic equipment that most researchers will require, but researchers are welcome to bring additional specialty equipment they need.

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