ARPA-H launches research program to restore sight to people who are blind
Program aims to transplant human eyes and reestablish visual connection to the brain
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), announced the Transplantation of Human Eye Allografts (THEA) program, which intends to transplant whole human eyes to restore vision for the blind and visually impaired.
Vision loss affects over 7 million Americans, with the most common causes being age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. Trauma and some hereditary conditions may also lead to blindness. While there are therapies to slow the progression of vision loss, there are currently none that restore sight.
Over 70,000 people in the U.S. donate their eyes after death each year. Yet only parts of the eye, most commonly the front surface or cornea, are currently able to be used for transplantation. As a result, the millions of people blinded by conditions of their retina and optic nerve have no options for improvement. THEA aims to address this issue, as it would transplant the whole donor eye and reconnect the nerves, muscles, and blood vessels to the brain so that the eye can function for sight.
“For centuries doctors have theorized eye transplantation to repair vision without success. However, very recent discoveries in vision science and neuroscience may now help solve the hurdles of reattaching the donor eye’s optic nerve to the recipient,” says ARPA-H THEA Program Manager Calvin Roberts, M.D. “With THEA, we aim to revolutionize the reconnection of nerves to the brain and make these advancements accessible in the United States and around the globe, with the ambition to offer an alternative to lifelong blindness.”
To accomplish eye transplant surgery and healing, THEA will leverage emerging microsurgical techniques, coupled with genetic and cell-based therapies, to preserve or regrow nerves from the eye to the brain. These regenerative solutions could help prevent degenerative blindness and are a critical step towards successful whole eye transplantation to restore vision. ARPA-H is emphasizing collaboration across academia and industry to accelerate these discoveries with unique tools not yet applied to ocular surgery.
“While it has been nearly 60 years since the first successful human heart transplant, we have not been able to use similar approaches to restore a person’s sight, and that’s what makes this an ARPA-hard problem to solve,” said ARPA-H Director Renee Wegrzyn, Ph.D. “Through THEA, we’re seeking to develop the next breakthroughs in transplantation, preservation, and neuroscience to address the challenge: ‘What if we could restore vision to those who are blind?’”
THEA intends to test and evaluate the best therapies to repair damaged nerves, to maintain critical structures in the eye, such as the retina and optic nerve viable after damage, and to prevent postoperative inflammation or rejection. Through a forthcoming Innovative Solutions Opening, THEA will request proposals focused on three technical areas: retrieval of donor eyes and maintenance of the health of donor eyes until transplantation; optic nerve repair and regeneration; and surgical procedures, post-operative care, and functional assessment.
Multiple awards under this solicitation are anticipated. Resources available will depend on the quality of the proposals received and the availability of funds. Learn more about THEA on its program page, including information about the Special Notice, Proposers’ Day registration, and how to state interest to form an applicant team.