Corneal disease is a collective term that refers many conditions that cause damage to the cornea.  The cornea is the clear tissue at the front of the eye that lets in light and helps focus it on the retina so that we can see. Disease or injury can damage the cornea, making it cloudy or distorted in shape, causing loss of vision.

Treatment for corneal disease is a transplant operation which removes all or part of a damaged cornea and is replaced by healthy donor tissue. Over 2,500 people have their sight restored in the UK by corneal transplants every year.

National Eye Research Centre is proud to have funded the establishment of the UK Corneal Transplant Service and ongoing research into improved treatments for corneal disease and methods of corneal transplantation.

Please donate to NERC today, so we can continue to fund vital research where the need is greatest. 

DONATE now

Causes of corneal disease

The cornea is the clear tissue at the front of the eye that lets in light and helps focus it on the retina so that we can see.

It protects your eyes from dirt, germs, and other particle, it filters and screens out some of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) waves and contributes between 65-75% of your eye's focusing power.

Disease or injury can damage the cornea, making it cloudy or distorted in shape, causing loss of vision. Common causes of damage to the cornea include:

  • Infections such as corneal ulcer that scar the corneal tissue
  • Keratoconus in young people, where the usually round cornea begins to bulge into a cone shape
  • Scarring caused by herpes, the cold sore virus
  • Age or inherited conditions may lead to cloudiness of the cornea in older people

Treatment for corneal disease

A cornea transplant replaces diseased corneal tissue with a disc of healthy tissue from a donor. There are different types of corneal transplant, the procedure chosen depends on which part of the cornea is damaged or how much of the cornea needs replacing.

The procedure usually lasts less than one hour and is carried out under local anaesthetic.

Cornea transplants are successful sight-saving operations, with 93% of grafts functioning after one year. By five years, 72% of grafts are still functioning and many will continue for many more years after that

The first successful cornea transplant was reported in Olmütz, Moravia, (now the Czech Republic) on 7 December 1905.

90% of transplants in the UK use corneas stored in the Corneal Transplant Service eye banks in Bristol and Manchester, which use special techniques to store the corneas for up to four weeks. Corneas are sent from other eye banks and hospitals throughout the UK for storage and subsequent distribution to more than 200 cornea transplant units.

More than 56,000 cornea transplants have been recorded on the UK National Transplant Database since the Corneal Transplant Service began in 1983.

Both old and young patients benefit from cornea transplants. Over half (52%) of all cornea transplant recipients are aged 60-89; nearly a quarter are patients in their 70s; and 3% of recipients are under 19 years old. The youngest person to receive a cornea transplant was just a few days old, the oldest was 104.

The corneal preparation room at Bristol Eye Hospital

The corneal preparation room in Bristol Eye Hospital

How to donate your cornea

There is a shortage of donated corneas in the UK. Many more people would benefit from sight-saving surgery if more corneas were donated.

People of all ages can donate corneas and about 65% of cornea-only donors are over 60 years old. Many more people could be cornea donors than organ donors. Unlike solid organs, corneas can be donated up to 24 hours after death. You do not have to die in hospital to donate your corneas but the retrieval service is usually provided by major hospitals

To register with the NHS Organ donor register, join online here or call 0300 123 23 23 (open 24 hours 7 days a week). 

NHS organ donation card

National Eye Research Centre is proud to have funded the establishment of the UK Corneal Transplant Service and ongoing research into improved treatments for corneal disease and methods of corneal transplantation. Please help us fund more research to combat eye disease, sight loss and blindness by making a donation to NERC now.

DONATE here