The Global Challenge
Around the world, more than 10 million people are blind because of corneal injury or disease, making it the World Health Organization’s second major global cause of blindness. But the treatment for this crippling condition exists.
Invented in the Czech Republic more than a century ago, corneal transplantation—a procedure in which a surgically harvested healthy cornea from a deceased donor to replace the damaged cornea of a blind patient—can effectively restore vision and is considered the most successful of any human organ transplant procedure. The outpatient surgery for a corneal transplant takes about an hour, and can forever change the patient’s quality of life.
But before a cornea transplant can occur, doctors and patients must first clear what can be a formidable series of hurdles. The first is what is often called a “severe” or “desperate” global shortage of human donor corneas.
Virtually no cornea donation takes place in many parts of Asia
For the more than 10 million blind people in the world who are candidates for having their vision restored through this procedure, only 100,000 donor corneas are available each year, addressing less than 1% of the global market demand. The severe shortage of cornea organ donors is particularly pronounced in many parts of Asia, where, because of cultural and religious reasons, virtually no organ donation takes place.
Cultural, infrastructure, logistic, and other constraints mean that the wait time for a suitable human donor cornea can be years to decades. In many parts of the world, these procedures do not occur at all, because of the lack of patients’ ability to pay or the absence of medical infrastructure that can support a complicated supply chain.
The lucky few who receive a donor cornea still face a lifelong regimen of topical immunosuppressive drugs to prevent organ rejection. Even with constant treatment, the rejection rate for a human cornea transplants is around 20% in adults, and 50% in children. In addition, there is the potential for the transmission of infectious disease from the transplantation of human donor tissue.