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Cornea research advancing thanks 
to EU funding

Collaboration can generate tangible results

Cheryl Guttman Krader

Posted: Wednesday, May 1, 2019


The ARREST BLINDNESS project consortium at the 4th Annual Project Meeting in Rome in February 2019

The Network of Excellence in Corneal Regeneration (NExCR) managed by the COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) Action BM1302 “Joining Forces in Corneal Regeneration Research” officially ended in 2017. However, by serving as the foundation for developing a new generation of cornea specialists interested in regenerative medicine, fostering growth in knowledge and being the impetus for additional research initiatives, its impact endures.
The idea to seek COST funding to link researchers and accelerate progress in the field of corneal regeneration originated with Claus Cursiefen MD, PhD, Cologne, Germany, Martine Jager MD, Leiden, the Netherlands, and Nadia Zakaria PhD, Antwerp, Belgium. Ultimately, groups from 21 countries participated in NExCR, and the four-year project is being deemed highly successful because of the opportunities it provided for training young scientists and for promoting scientific information exchange.
Beyond those achievements, however, NExCR became the springboard for new ideas and success in securing additional funding, including for two important new projects — ARREST (Advanced Regenerative and REStorative Therapies to combat corneal) BLINDNESS, which is supported by a grant of nearly €6 million from the HORIZON 2020 programme of the European Commission; and Aniridia: networking to address an unmet medical, scientific, and societal challenge (ANIRIDIA-NET), a four-year EU COST Action that is just getting under way.
“NExCR brought together scientists who were working in isolation and allowed us to skill-share at a level that was not possible before. But while there is certainly value in being able to network with colleagues, it is more important for the collaboration to generate tangible results,” said Sorcha Ní Dhubhghaill MD, PhD, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium.
“With limited resources available to fund healthcare research, it can be difficult to attract research money for cornea disease that unlike some other problems is not a matter of life or death. But vision impairment and loss have devastating consequences on quality of life, and by bringing together the expertise of multiple players through NExCR, we have been able to successfully push for corneal blindness to get the attention it deserves.”

ARREST BLINDNESS

Led by Neil Lagali PhD, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden, ARREST BLINDNESS is a four-year research consortium of 12 partners in eight EU countries. It is a multifaceted programme that has as its main goal the development and validation in preclinical and first clinical studies advanced regenerative and restorative therapies to treat the loss of corneal transparency so that it does not result in blindness.
More specifically, ARREST BLINDNESS is aiming to validate tissue-engineered GMP-compliant scaffolds based on natural materials; validate and optimise new GMP-compliant cell-based therapies; and validate new molecular agents and drug-delivery approaches for restoring the neural and immune environment in order to prevent graft rejection.
“The project includes four clinical studies applying new materials, imaging and cell therapies in the cornea. It is the first and largest HORIZON 2020-funded project in cornea research,” said Dr Lagali.
“Cornea grafting is the oldest form of tissue transplantation and it has a lower rate of rejection than any other tissue or organ transplant surgery. Rejection still happens, however, and because people are living longer now than before, ideally we would like to see that a corneal graft can be viable for a person’s lifetime,” said Dr Ní Dhubhghaill.

ANIRIDIA-NET
Under the leadership of Dr Lagali, seven partners from COST NExCR/ARREST BLINDNESS put together the proposal for COST Action ANIRIDIA-NET. The network, which is funded for 2019 to 2023, is open 
to European researchers to join. Now, it consists of 69 members in 24 European countries. Its goal is to promote scientific exchanges, collaborative research, harmonised protocols and pooling of samples and models to advance aniridia research and clinical practice.
“Aniridia is a devastating congenital eye disease affecting the entire eye, leading to cataract, glaucoma, nystagmus and a progressive corneal stem cell deficiency,” said Dr Lagali.
“A key focus of ANIRIDIA-NET is to develop novel diagnostics and treatments based on the latest developments in genomics, regenerative medicine, stem cells, investigational drugs, gene therapy, tissue engineering and transplantation.”
“As NExCR was winding down, we reflected on its success in generating research articles, drawing attention to the field, and making inroads into corneal blindness. Wanting to not lose the momentum, several partners came together to identify a develop a plan to address another unmet need,” said Dr Ní Dhubhghaill.
“Aniridia is a challenging disease for which there are few good treatments. Because it is a relatively rare condition, however, individual clinicians or single centres see only a small number of affected patients. The collaboration, networking and sharing opportunities afforded by the COST action should enable research progress that will result in benefits for aniridia patients.”
Dr Lagali concluded: “In funding ARREST BLINDNESS and ANIRIDIA-NET, the European Commission has committed significant investments in promoting transnational collaboration in the area of cornea research. This research is making its way into the clinic to provide tangible benefits to patients.”

Sorcha Ní Dhubhghaill: 
nidhubhs@gmail.com
Neil Lagali: neil.lagali@liu.se


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