Many Birmingham-area medical professionals are familiar with the Alabama Eye Bank (AEB) and the sight-restoring work it does throughout the state. But relatively few realize that the AEB facility in Homewood is also home to a worldwide humanitarian outreach effort called Global Sight Network (GSN).
A service of AEB formed in partnership with other eye banks across the United States, GSN utilizes a glycerol based storage technique to preserve medically eligible corneal tissue not suitable for transplant. This tissue, which might otherwise be discarded, is made available for tectonic coverage and other uses to previously underserved patients around the world.
“There’s normally a very limited time frame for collecting and transplanting organs, but eye tissue preserved in glycerin can last up to five years,” said Doyce Williams, AEB’s president and CEO. “During the past few years, we realized that we needed to be more purposeful in what we were going to do with unused tissue. The need was too great to just let it sit there.”
So in 2007, Williams and members of the AEB staff began discussing with leaders of other eye banks the possibilities for collecting unused corneal tissue and distributing it, either domestically or internationally, to people who needed it.
In the spring of 2008, validation studies on the glycerol process were performed, and later that same year, GSN was launched with a solicitation to partner eye banks at the Eye Bank Association of America’s annual fall meeting.
Not only does GSN work to get corneal tissue to where it’s needed most and promote the use of glycerol preserved corneas worldwide, the entity also fosters research into new corneal preservation methods and surgical uses then publishes clinical findings of corneas preserved through the GSN techniques.
And that’s a tall order, considering the volume of tissue being collected, processed and distributed by GSN.
“Right now, the average number of tissues sent monthly through the GSN process is 250, making AEB one of the largest eye banks in the country just by being part of the GSN network,” Williams said. “The procurement and testing is paid for by other eye banks up front, and they send the tissue to us. It’s a true nonprofit model of service unique in its model of transportation.”
According to Williams, 35 of the eye banks in the U.S. provide 85 percent of all the tissue provided in this country, including tissue that comes through AEB.
“The first decision we have to make when tissue comes to AEB here is whether or not we have enough time to send it fresh to where it’s needed,” he said. “If the time limitation is too short, we direct it toward long-term preservation, meaning it goes into the GSN process.
“It’s an exciting area for us, one that’s unique to eye banking. We’re the only ones utilizing and distributing tissue throughout the world in this way.”
Interestingly, the cornea tissue distributed by GSN is most often used in glaucoma surgery. Since elevated eye pressure is the major risk factor with glaucoma, patients are routinely fitted with a device to promote the drainage of fluid from the eye.
“The tube (shunt) of the drainage device is covered with corneal material to protect it and help keep it in position, which allows the eyelid to glide over it,” Williams said.
The tissue may also be used for emergency ocular repairs. In that regard, donor tissue can be cut to protect a specific damaged portion of an eye to become a shield for preserving residual vision.
As to the safety of the tissue it distributes, GSN, along with its contributing eye banks, utilizes a multi-step process regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Eye Bank Association of America, including screening of potential donors and ensuring complete tissue traceability. Information on the tissue source and specifics related to the donor’s medical history is coded and placed on all tissue packaging.
Each step of the process, said Williams is carefully monitored for consistency and accuracy, from the initial processing through the final packaging.
“This is a unique and focused service, and we’ve been fortunate to have great support,” he said. “And we’ve worked hard to operate in an above-reproach manner. This is truly a humanitarian non-profit endeavor.”
GSN accepts financial contributions from individuals, corporate or institutional foundations and charitable funds. Donors are also welcome to make gifts in memory or in honor of a family member, friend or colleague. For more about GSN, visit .