'Eyebank' aims to speed up cornea transplants

September 6, 2011 7:43:19 PM PDT
A new transplant center in the Bay Area could help hundreds of patients regain their fading eyesight.

Many patients have conditions that require cornea transplants and now, a state of the art center will be providing a key component to make them possible.

Just about everything looks good to Martin Sanchez these days, but two years ago, it was a different story.

"Depth of field was absolutely gone. It was very difficult for me to figure where things were coming from and what speed they were coming at," he recalled.

With the sight in his right eye fading from a degenerative condition, surgeons at Kaiser-Permanente in Redwood City performed a cornea transplant. It is a delicate procedure, but one that can produce dramatic results.

"It is tremendous. Mr. Sanchez, for example, now has 20/20 vision in that eye. It's made a remarkable difference," Dr. Douglas Holsclaw at Kaiser Permanente.

Doctors say a key hurdle is often finding a healthy cornea which must be transplanted quickly after a donor's death. But now, the process of obtaining those corneas is about to become far more streamlined for surgeons and patients in the Bay Area.

Rusty Kelly is the regional director of SightLife, a non-profit that just opened a new eye bank in Brisbane. It is designed to speed the collection and distribution of corneal tissue.

"We have to get tissue recovered within 12 hours of someone's death, then transplanted within 2.5, 3 days," Kelly explained.

Once the organization receives permission from a donor's family, it arranges to collect the cornea, and bring it into the lab. There, it is checked for both damage and disease such as HIV. After confirming the cornea is healthy, technicians examine the cell layer known as the endothelium.

"From a surgeon's point-of-view, fresh tissue is paramount. Surgeons want to insure they have sufficient cells when it's transplanted," Kelly said.

He added that the organization is on pace to facilitate about 900 transplants this year across California.

"In a few years, we anticipate we'll be able to have 1,500," he said.

For Sanchez, it has been life-changing.

"Though I may not know a lot of the people, I can totally relate. I feel good for them," he said.

SiteLife will also be collecting and processing eye tissue for local research centers, including including UCSF.


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