In a lab not far from the beach in North Wollongong, a team of scientists have been painstakingly working out how to recreate the delicate transparent structure of the human cornea.
And after years of research, they're close to being about to create the world's first bioengineered cornea using a 3D printer, and by the end of this decade aim to restore sight to millions of people across the globe.
They are part of a consortium of experts from institutions around Australia called BIENCO, which last week received a record-breaking $35 million grant for the second stage of their work to address the world's third most common cause of blindness.
The University of Wollongong scientists, working at the Innovation Campus's Australian Institute of Innovative Materials, are responsible for developing the machinery and manufacturing line which will physically print and reproduce the corneas on a large scale.
UOW's Distinguished Professor Gordon Wallace, the scientific lead on the project, said they would be able to turn a single donated tissue into 30 synthetic corneas ready to be transplanted.
"Corneal blindness is quite common - there's a need for about 2000 transplants in Australia each year and around the world there is an amazing shortage of donated corneas," he said.
"There's one donated cornea for every 70 people on the waiting lists, so there's a real need, and it will solve a real medical problem."
It's hoped the first transplants are only a couple of years away.
"Our first target is for a transplant of the endothelium (outside) layer in around 2027 or 2028 for our first in human trial, and then a couple of years after that for a fully bioengineered cornea," Prof Wallace said.
He said this work would also have wider implications for other synthetic body parts, setting up a manufacturing pathway for the work being done by scientists at UOW.
"This is our first bio-engineered product, we've been working on using 3D bio-printing and different types of bio-engineered products for almost 20 years now, and now we can almost touch it," he said.
"It's groundbreaking science that's been pulled together to meet a real medical need and it will enable us to think about how we design other manufacturing lines for other bioengineered products."
The BIENCO consortium includes experts from University of Sydney and UOW as well as the University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology, the Centre for Eye Research Australia and the NSW Organ & Tissue Donation Service.
The medical lead is the University of Sydney's Professor Gerard Sutton - son of UOW's beloved former Vice Chancellor who shares the same name.
He said the latest funding for BIENCO, which was launched in 2021, was the largest grant in Australia's history for eye research.
"This positions us as a global bioengineered tissue provider and is humbling recognition of the importance of our work and the advancements the BIENCO team have made," he said.
"Thanks to our partnership with the NSW Organ and Tissue Donation Service, we've been able to rapidly develop world-first solutions for corneal blindness that are ready to be put into market to help patients in Australia and around the world."