Singapore launches first bank in Asia for eye surgery patients to freeze piece of corneal tissue for future use

Cordlife's facility is capable of storing lenticules at below minus 150 deg C.
Cordlife's facility is capable of storing lenticules at below minus 150 deg C.PHOTO: CORDLIFE GROUP

SINGAPORE - Patients who go under the blade to correct their myopia will now be able to freeze tissue from their own corneas, preserving it to potentially treat long-sightedness and other eye conditions they develop in the future.

Called OptiQ, the service is the first of its kind in Asia. It was launched on Wednesday (March 3) by local company Cordlife Group, which owns a series of international cord blood banks.

OptiQ is meant for patients who undergo refractive eye surgery using a method called lenticule extraction. The lenticule is a tiny disc-shaped piece of corneal tissue.

Small Incision Lenticule Extraction (Smile), a non-essential procedure which reduces the dependency on glasses, is a form of refractive eye surgery.

Professor Donald Tan, an adjunct professor with the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) and medical adviser to OptiQ, said: "A laser cuts a lens-shape piece of tissue within your cornea, which matches your myopia, and then we remove it through a little keyhole incision at the side.

"And that piece which we remove, which is essentially your myopia, is the corneal lenticule."

Prof Tan, the former medical director of SNEC and former director of the Singapore Eye Research Institute (Seri), added that the corneal lenticule is usually thrown away after such procedures.

But this is a waste of resources, he said.

Prof Tan explained that the tissue has potential uses given that the lenticule is shaped like a lens with a specific power.

The lenticule removed from a patient with 300 degrees of myopia will be like a lens with a corrective power of 300 degrees.

Prof Tan added that many patients who are treated for myopia in their 20s or 30s will later develop presbyopia in their 40s.

Unlike myopia, where people have trouble focusing on distant objects, those with presbyopia lose the ability to focus on objects at close range. They then require reading glasses or plastic implants to correct their vision.

But some patients do not want to wear glasses, and plastic implants carry a risk of inflammation or risk being rejected by the body.

Prof Tan said if the patient's own lenticule were to be reimplanted, it could theoretically correct the patient's condition with minimal risk of inflammation or scarring.

But the facilities to store corneal lenticules for the long term did not exist previously in Singapore. Similar technology, however, did exist in the blood bank and stem cell storage business, which Cordlife is involved in.


 Local company Cordlife Group owns a series of international cord blood banks. PHOTO: CORDLIFE GROUP

So Prof Tan and the head and senior consultant of SNEC’s corneal and external eye disease department, Professor Jodhbir Mehta, worked with Cordlife to develop OptiQ, which was licensed by the Ministry of Health in January this year.

Cordlife's facility is capable of storing the lenticules at below minus 150 deg C.

"At this temperature, all biological activity is suspended and no degradation occurs," said Cordlife's laboratory director, Dr Tang Kin Fai, adding that this theoretically allows the lenticules to be stored "indefinitely".

The cost of OptiQ before GST is either $4,500 upfront for 20 years' storage, or an annual plan of $1,800 for first year and $180 per year for the next 19 years of storage.

If both lenticules are utilised, the remaining cost of storage will be waived.

"Almost every one of us will have presbyopia after the age of 40. We believe this advancement in ophthalmology can help a lot of people and even bring healthcare in Singapore to the next level," said Prof Mehta.

Prof Tan added that corneal lenticules may be able to treat not just presbyopia, but other conditions such as hyperopia, aphakia and corneal perforation as well.

While he acknowledged that the use of these lenticules in treatment is still being trialled, he added: "The key is that we're not wasting the tissue - we're storing it for you in case you need it."

Dr Tang added that in recent years, many trials have been conducted both locally and internationally to correct vision disorders using the lenticules.

"We're confident that in the future, the cryopreserved lenticules will be able to be used for the greater good.

"And once these (trials) advance to standard therapies, anyone who has stored their corneal lenticules can be a part of this medical revolution and have more treatment options in the future."