The mission of the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank is to help restore sight through eye donation.
More than fifty years ago, two organizations—the University of Minnesota and the Lions—combined their aspirations and their resources to create the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank. Both recognized that they held the common interest of serving the people of Minnesota, and one way to act on this service was to give the state an eye bank.
Dr. Harris, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, laid the groundwork for an eye bank by developing a plan to approach the families of deceased patients at University of Minnesota-affiliated hospitals about donating their loved ones’ eyes. He then worked with the School of Mortuary Science to establish a mutually acceptable technique for removing donor eyes.
Austin, Minn., Lions club member, George Dugan, solicited Lions club support across the state and arranged financial backing. Thanks to Mr. Dugan’s efforts, Minnesota Lions, at their annual meeting in June 1960, unanimously adopted the eye bank resolution, and the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank was born.
In the spring of 1961, Minnesota Lions presented the University with a check for $6,400, representing a pledge of $1.00 per Lions member. The Lions contributions increased regularly as the eye bank program expanded, and today Lions donations top $200,000 per year. These donations support not just the eye bank, but also help the Lions Children’s Eye Clinic, the Lions Macular Degeneration Center, and eye research efforts at the Lions Research Building.
Lions club members solicited public support for the eye bank by instituting a donor card system. By the early 1970’s, thanks to the outreach of local Lions clubs, approximately 100,000 Minnesotans carried donor cards asking that their eyes be donated to the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank after death.
Minnesota governors also contributed to the cause, proclaiming one week in March as “Eye Bank Week.” In 1983, President Ronald Reagan added national support when he proclaimed the first National Eye Donor Month. Since then, Congress has designated each March as National Eye Donor Month.
To facilitate eye donation throughout the state, local Lions clubs provided hospitals with eye donor kits, which contained the necessary instructions and materials to enable any physician to remove eyes from a deceased person. But how to get the donated eyes to the eye bank in time remained a problem. Fortunately, in June 1962, the Minnesota Highway Patrol stepped in and offered to relay donated eyes from patrol district to patrol district (with lights and sirens, if necessary!) until they reached the University Hospital in Minneapolis. For 42 years, the Minnesota State Patrol was a dedicated transportation partner, helping the eye bank serve its 86-thousand square mile territory.
Funeral Director Support
By the early 1970s, the number of eyes coming to the eye bank had plateaued to about 200 per year. Despite statewide efforts, most donations still occurred in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Metro Area, and eye donation opportunities for deceased persons in greater Minnesota were severely limited.
One attempt to clear this bottleneck and bring eye donation services to the entire state was the 1974 legislation authorizing specially trained morticians to remove eyes, thus increasing the supply potential. The eye bank developed a training program to teach funeral directors enucleation (the removal of eyes for eye banking purposes). Funeral directors enthusiastically embraced the program, and over the years became increasingly active in supplying donor material to the eye bank. The cornerstone of eye recovery in greater Minnesota for 30 years, they enucleated more than 10,000 eyes and helped thousands receive cornea transplants.
Corneal Storage Breakthrough
In its early days, cornea transplantation was similar to modern organ transplantation: A donor cornea had to be transplanted within a few hours of the donor’s death. This restriction severely limited the number of potential transplants.
In 1972, the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank helped develop a preservation solution for corneas. This solution preserved the cornea for up to two weeks and permitted corneal surgeries to be performed as scheduled procedures. Short–term storage revolutionized eye banking. The technology is still in use around the world today.
In 2003, the eye bank began in situ procurement (cornea only removal) in metropolitan areas. Statewide in situ recovery soon followed.
In 2007, the eye bank began offering corneal tissue pre-cut for endothelial keratoplasty (EK) surgeries. EK is a specialized type of corneal transplant in which only the inner layer of the cornea is transplanted. EK surgery offers a more conservative surgical approach for patients whose corneal disease involves only the endothelial cells-about 40% of corneal patients.
Now located at University Enterprise Laboratories, a non-profit bioscience incubator in Saint Paul’s “bioscience zone,” the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank has provided corneas for more than 30,000 transplant surgeries. Across the world, countless people have been helped by more than 29,000 eyes provided by our eye bank for research that leads to the development of treatments and cures.