Vision impairment affects over 250 million people worldwide, with thirty-six million people being blind. Retinal degeneration is 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 experiments, particularly to test the effectiveness of new drugs and treatments.
Now, an interdisciplinary consortium composed by seven international research centres will work to find new solutions within the framework of the European Project ECaBOX. The project has been awarded 3.5 million euros by the European Union’s Future and Emerging Technologies Open research /FET-OPEN) programme, which funds radical new technologies.
ECaBOX project will be coordinated by Pia Cosma at the CRG in collaboration with two other Catalan Research centres – Ricardo Casaroli at the Universitat de Barcelona and Nuria Montserrat, ICREA Research Professor and Group Leader at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC). Other international collaborators include King’s College London (KCL) in the UK, the Association for the Advancement of Tissue Engineering and Cell Based Technologies & Therapies (A4TEC) in Portugal, AFERETICA in Italy and the BarIlan University (BIU) in Israel.
The ECaBOX Project and device
While advances in human organoids (cellular models that simulate the complexity of such organs in the culture dish) are successfully mimicking the function of the eye, they still present limitations when encapsulating the eye’s physiological complexity, such as its immune, vasculature, and metabolism systems.
The new method develop within ECaBOX project 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.
The device, codnamed ECaBox, will be a transparent, cubic 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. An early prototype of the device is expected to be built by end of 2023.