Dr. May Griffith’s artificial cornea promises to address the worldwide shortage of human donor tissue

November 16, 2007

Dr. May Griffith’s artificial cornea promises to address the worldwide shortage of human donor tissue and significantly reduce the need for live animal ocular irritation testing. Her work in this field began with research into laser eye surgery wound healing. Needing material to develop models, she contacted an eye bank for donor tissue. Little did she know, that phone call would have a dramatic impact on her career.

“I phoned the eye bank, they told me that I had to be kidding, because there is a waiting list in Canada and no, you can’t have good corneas for research because we need it for the patients,” said Dr. Griffith. “I decided that I was just going to make my own corneas so I would have a good supply.”

About 10 million people around the world suffer from vision loss, and must often wait years for treatment because of a shortage of human donor tissue. Dr. Griffith’s artificial corneas, cast-moulded out of polymer, promise to change this. What’s more, thanks to the corneas’ bio-interactive, collagen-based scaffolds, the patient’s body will not reject them.

Dr. Griffith states that the only way to get stable engraftment—seamless graft-host interaction— is to get the own patient’s own tissues to grow back. When tissue grows in it, it becomes integrated so it becomes part of the eye. There is no seam, so it is seamless integration. The fact that the patient’s own cells are growing in and remodeling the scaffold means that the patient will not need immunosuppressive drugs; there is a lifetime of no rejection.

Dr. Griffith undertakes both basic and applied research in her work. She says this combined approach is key to her team’s success in developing their artificial cornea, which is about to begin Phase 1 clinical trials.

“Basically, the only way we will continue to move ahead, is to keep developing novel materials, novel ideas and the only way to do this is a basic science approach,” says Dr. Griffith. “On the other hand, we are interest in treating patients; we are interested in transplantation, so here at the University and OHRI, we have put together a pipeline that goes from basic all the way to applied.”

Though still at the beginning of what promises to be an impressive career, Dr. Griffith has already awed many of her more established peers. In the past seven years, she has had 49 papers and six refereed book chapters published. She holds three patents, with seven more in the works, and was hailed as one of Canada’s Top 40 under 40. Perhaps most remarkable, her accomplishments came during a period when she moved her laboratory three times, underwent treatment for cancer and adopted a baby.

Note: this text is reproduced with permission from OCRI Life Sciences. In September 2007, Dr. Griffith received the OCRI Life Sciences Research Award. For further information, please see Dr. Griffith's scientific profile.