Yet, each of these important research studies contributes to scientific understanding. That, in turn, can lead to new treatments, new procedures and even new medical devices that can help hundreds of thousands of people. These and a dozen other published research projects relied on donated eye tissues made available by the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank.
While the eye bank’s mission is to fulfill the wishes of eye donors and their families to help another overcome blindness through transplantation, sometimes a transplant is not possible. “Most often there is a physical problem with the donated tissue,” said Eric Meinecke, the eye bank's technical manager. “A donated cornea may not have the minimum number of cells needed for a successful transplant or it may have another defect that didn’t necessarily hamper the donor’s vision, but would be a problem in a transplant recipient.” Occasionally the eye bank learns of something in the donor’s medical history that precludes a transplant. In these cases, the families of eye donors have the option of allowing the donated corneas to be used for education or research.
The eye bank recognizes it must be a good steward of the trust placed in it by eye donors and their families. “We take great care to be sure the research follows certain procedures and that researchers agree to provide us with follow-up information on how the tissues were used,” said Meinecke. Researchers must request tissue in advance and describe in detail the criteria the tissue must meet for inclusion in the study. Not all donated tissues eligible for research use, however, will meet the criteria. As a last resort, the eye bank looks for an educational use.
Robert Austin, the eye bank’s public and professional relations manager, says education can be as important as research. “A lot of people are just unsure of what we’re talking about when we say “corneal transplant.” When we can show what a cornea looks like — it is only about the size of a thumbnail and it has the potential to cure blindness — it puts the whole idea in a different light. The eye bank provides these preserved, educational corneas to the Donor Awareness Council, which uses them as tools in its “Transplantation Science” program taught in middle and high schools throughout the region. Educational tissues are also used to help train surgeons to perfect new surgical techniques.
Residents of Colorado and Wyoming can register to be eye, organ and tissue donors through their driver’s license or through links found here. It’s important to know that the registry doesn’t cover consent for research or education, so it’s vital to tell you family about your decision and any wish to donate for research if a transplant isn’t possible.