An eye for an eye

SINGAPORE - Scientists have found a way to reverse age-related far-sightedness.

A piece of corneal tissue or lenticule removed surgically to rid people in their 20s of short-sightedness can be re-implanted into the eye 20 to 30 years later to stop presbyopia or far-sightedness.

"We have shown in animal models that the lenticules can be shaped and re-implanted back into the cornea, retaining their biological viability," said Associate Professor Donald Tan, who is the chairman of the Singapore Eye Research Institute.

"The lenticule or corneal tissue is 99 per cent pure collagen. This means we can shape and reshape, and safely implant donated lenticules into the eyes of others without worrying about rejection," added Prof Tan, who is also the lead principal investigator.

It was only this year that his team of researchers established that lenticules re-implanted into the eyes of people with thin corneas can restore its thickness.

$25m grant

They have secured a $25-million grant to carry out this study, along with four others on the eye, over the next five years.

A project undertaken by the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium also received a $25-million grant.

Two other teams received funding of $9 million each.

The Health Ministry's National Medical Research Council manages these grants.

The A*Star Biomedical Research Council also poured in another $58 million from its Strategic Positioning Fund for four other programmes for a period of three years.

The new funding and grants were announced at a media conference for the 17th meeting of Singapore's Biomedical Sciences International Advisory Council on Friday.

It was chaired by A*Star Chairman Lim Chuan Poh and the Permanent Secretary for Health, Mrs Tan Ching Yee.

Commending Singapore for its push in Biomedical Sciences in the last 12 years, Sir Richard Sykes, who heads the Biomedical Sciences International Advisory Council , said: "Now that Singapore is in its third phase of its BMS (biomedical sciences) initiative... I believe we can expect to see Singapore attracting more pharma, biologics, medtech, personal care and nutrition companies here.

"The attendant social benefits will come from having early access to cost-effective and novel health solutions," he added.

And, hoping to reap such benefits, Prof Tan and his eye researchers have patented its technology of "reversing" the surgery that rids short-sightedness to correct age-related far-sightedness - the first of its kind.

Along with that, the method of preserving the corneal tissue in liquid nitrogen is also patented here and in the region.

And this week, the team signed the final licensing agreement with Lenticor, a new local spin-off company that has prior expertise in cryopreservation and private cord blood banking.

"We are looking at private banking where patients store their own lenticules for use later as well as public banking where the tissues can be donated to others in need," Prof Tan said, adding that the team visited the Singapore Cord Blood Bank and the private ones "a couple of years back" to look at storage viability.

Apart from the challenge of re-implanting the lenticules to correct presbyopia, the other challenge for the team now, Prof Tan said, is storing the lenticules "at the right angle, especially for people with astigmatism".

Astigmatism is a condition where the curve of the cornea is irregular.

"We are looking at the design of the cases. After all, we are taking about 100,000 lenticules," he said.

Currently, between 200 and 300 lenticules have been collected for experiments.

Clinical trials on patients start as early as next year.

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