New business partnership to kickstart innovative alternative to corneal transplants

A biotech company and University of Leeds researchers aim to develop new technology that can treat “death signals” found in corneal disease and eye injuries.

The six-month interdisciplinary collaboration with UK-based biotech company, Connexin Therapeutics, will bring together industry and academics from a range of disciplines, including the Schools of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine and aims to provide an alternative to current treatments, such as highly invasive corneal transplants.

The project is being led by Dr Katie Simmons, Lecturer in Structural Pharmacology in the Faculty of Biological Sciences and CEO of Connexin Therapeutics Dr Carlos N. Velez.

“Approximately 185,000 corneal transplants are performed in 116 countries, yet 53% of the world’s population lacks access to corneal transplantation,” said Dr Simmons

“They are also expensive and don’t guarantee the best patient outcome. Molecules that can stop cells performing a certain way offer us a hopeful alternative to these transplants because they could be used in non-invasive drugs which may protect and preserve remaining corneal tissue, enabling the patient to avoid surgery. 

By spring next year, we hope to have developed a suitable cellular assay technology that can further our journey in developing a lower-cost approach to treating corneal diseases.

Dr Katie Simmons, School of Biomedical Sciences

Cornea transplants

The cornea is composed of thin, clear, and protective layers across the eye. It plays an important role in vision as it helps your eye to focus at various distances. It is responsible for about two-thirds of the eye's total optical power.

There are several diseases where a doctor may recommend a cornea transplant, such as Keratoconus - a condition that causes the cornea to weaken, get thinner and change shape and Fuchs' endothelial dystrophy, a degenerative disease where the lining the inner cornea begins to deteriorate. 

In a cornea transplant, a surgeon removes damaged cornea and replaces it with donated healthy corneal tissue. For some people, cornea transplant surgery restores vision, however, they are not guaranteed to be effective or a permanent fix. As with all surgeries, there’s also risk of complications resulting from a cornea transplant, such as infection or further vision problems.

In the UK alone, NHS spending on eye health is approaching £3 billion, driven by an aging population and rising levels of obesity and diabetes.

Dr Carlos Velez, CEO of Connexin Therapeutics added:

“Corneal transplants are a common approach to treat a wide range of corneal injuries and diseases. But they are not always successful, and corneal tissue can be difficult to obtain.

Our collaboration with the multidisciplinary team at the University of Leeds will enable us to develop novel drugs which can protect and preserve existing corneal tissue, thereby reducing the number of patients who must resort to corneal transplants.

“This is in addition to similar work we are doing to protect and preserve retina and optic nerve in glaucoma and other eye diseases.”

The vision for Connexin proteins

Connexins are proteins that assemble into tiny channels which enable small molecules to move between connected cells. In some cases, cell-cell communication spreads negative signals triggering what scientists call ‘cell death’. This is observed in many conditions, including diseases of the cornea.

Using a mixture of techniques through state-of-the-art equipment based at the University of Leeds, researchers hope to develop tools which will enable the discovery of drugs which can block this process, preserve cornea, and avoid transplants.

For more information about Connexin Therapeutics, visit their website.