The President and CEO of SightLife, Monty Montoya, goes in-depth on the remarkable process by which surgeons transplant corneal tissue. 

Mediaplanet: What exactly is the cornea?

Monty Montoya: The cornea is the clear surface of the eye that covers the iris and pupil. It lets light into the eye like a window, permitting sight. Corneal blindness is a visual impairment that occurs when the cornea becomes clouded, scarred or misshapen. This condition may be the result of injury, infection or diseases that cause corneal scarring, which can lead to blindness.

MP: Can you explain the process of a corneal transplant?

MM: The first successful cornea transplant took place in 1905. To perform a transplant, a corneal surgeon removes the diseased portion of the cornea and replaces it with a graft of healthy corneal tissue. The corneal graft comes from an eye bank, which medically evaluates, processes and distributes eye tissue donated by caring individuals for use in corneal transplantation, research and education.

"While American eye banks are typically able to meet all of the demand for corneas in the U.S., there are 10 million cornea-blind individuals worldwide."

With a success rate of more than 90 percent, most people undergoing a cornea transplant can expect a good outcome. More than 48,000 corneal transplants are performed in the U.S. each year and hundreds of thousands more people are helped through cornea-based research into cures for blinding diseases.

MP: Why should people donate their corneas?

MM: Corneal disease is a major cause of blindness world-wide, second only to cataracts, and restoring sight to the corneal blind is only possible through cornea donation. The process starts with a person’s decision to be a donor, or a family’s consent to donation, and results in a life-transforming cornea transplant. While American eye banks are typically able to meet all of the demand for corneas in the U.S., there are 10 million cornea-blind individuals worldwide.

As stewards of the precious gift of corneal tissue, eye banks evaluate each cornea in a laboratory and promptly process it according to surgeon specifications and the exact needs of the recipient. We never take a donor's gift for granted—no opportunity for transplant, education or research is missed.

MP: Who is eligible to donate?

MM: Virtually everyone can be a cornea donor—even people who die from cancer—because corneal tissue is bloodless. There are no requirements for blood type matching, age, strength of eyesight or eye color. Individuals with communicable diseases such as HIV, syphilis or hepatitis, or other health issues, are not able to donate.