We are an international consortium of researchers aiming to develop a new method to bring eyes back to life from deceased body donors for clinical research purposes.

Coordinated by Dr. Pia Cosma at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, the multidisciplinary team is creating a device that resuscitates eyes from the dead. The team will develop artificial blood to provide cells with oxygen and nutrients, kick-starting the activity of nerve cells and restoring total eye function. Artificial vitreous humour will maintain the ocular pressure.

The device, codnamed ECaBox, will be a transparent box that mimics conditions in the living human eye, maintaining the eye’s temperature and pH levels while avoiding blood clots and removing metabolic waste and toxins.

Vision impairment affects over 250 million people worldwide, with thirty-six million people being blind. Retinal degenerations are often incurable, and ageing populations worldwide are major social and economic challenges.

Current technological limitations mean that eyes can only be kept at 4ºC for a period of 48 hours before irreversible degradation. This greatly limits their use for research, particularly to test the effectiveness of new drugs and treatments.

While advances in human organoids (growing tissues in a Petri dish) are successfully mimicking the function of the eye, they fail to encapsulate the eye’s physiological complexity, such as its immune systems, vasculature and metabolism.

ECaBox will circumvent these limitations by reviving eyes and maintaining them healthy for at least one month, helping researchers assess the efficacy, efficiency, and safety of new regenerative therapies and drug testing. Using resuscitated eyes can also bypass several ethical restrictions of preclinical animal testing, as well as human experimentation.

“There is a huge number of potential new treatments and therapies for eye damage and vision loss, but the eyewatering cost of running a clinical trial can mean they never reach the market. Our new method can greatly improve the preclinical validation steps for these treatments, supporting the screening of a larger number of candidates and helping promising drugs escape the ‘valley of death’ imposed by cost-benefit analyses in the pharmaceutical industry.” says Pia Cosma, ICREA Research Professor and Group Leader at the CRG and coordinator of the project.

We expect to build an early prototype of the device by the end of 2023. Upon completion, the team plans to use the device to test their own retinal regenerative therapies.

“A theory developed in the late 90s suggests that fusing cells of different types can result in new hybrid cells that can differentiate into specialised retinal cells, but the technology to test how this works in practice has been limited.” says Pia Cosma, “We will use the new device to explore this approach for the first time in human eyes.

The project has been awarded 3.5 million euros by the European Union’s Future and Emerging Technologies Open research programme, which funds radical new technologies.