Scientist honoured in Queen’s New Year list

A scientist from the University of Bristol has been honoured in the Queen’s New Year Honours list, which recognises the achievements and service of people across the UK. Along with the Birthday honours, they are the most significant announcement of civilian and military gallantry awards.

Professor John Armitage , Emeritus Professor of Cryobiology in the Bristol Medical School: Translational Health Sciences and former Director of Bristol Tissue Bank, has been awarded an OBE for his services to corneal transplantation.

Professor Armitage, speaking about his award, said: “I am truly delighted to have my work recognised in this way. The award also reflects the impact of the work by the Bristol Eye Bank and recognises the collective effort of Bristol University staff, ophthalmology colleagues in the Bristol Eye Hospital and collaborating organisations including NHS Blood and Transplant and the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. However, above all, I must acknowledge the thoughtfulness and generosity of the families of eye donors, without whom tissue and organ transplantation would not be possible.”

After completing a PhD in cardiac cryopreservation and following research posts in Cambridge, UK and the USA, Professor Armitage moved to the University of Bristol in 1984 to help set up the Bristol Eye Bank with Professor David Easty , then Head of Ophthalmology, and Professor Ben Bradley, former Medical Director of UK Transplant.

The Corneal Transplant Service Eye Bank in Bristol (CTS Bristol Eye Bank), part of the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences , issued its first corneas in March 1986 and soon became one of Europe’s largest eye banks. The CTS Manchester Eye Bank was established in 1989 and together these two eye banks have supplied corneas through NHS Blood and Transplant for more than 70,000 corneal transplant patients throughout the UK.

The CTS Eye Banks are now fully integrated into NHS Blood and Transplant , the NHS organisation that oversees organ, tissue and stem cell transplantation for the UK as well as blood transfusion in England. Professor Armitage recently transferred to the NHS but still carries out research through the University of Bristol into corneal transplant outcomes and transplant immunology.

A key to the success of the Corneal Transplant Service was the fact that the Bristol Eye Bank was the first eye bank in the UK to use a new method of storage for corneas - organ culture storage at 34°C. This innovation increased the storage time of corneas from just a few days at 4°C to a month.

There is an assumption that all tissues used for transplantation are stored frozen. In the case of corneas, however, laboratory and clinical studies have demonstrated that the action of freezing can cause significant damage. The one alternative - refrigerated storage - allows corneas to be kept only for a few days, but Professor Armitage’s innovative work introduced methods of storing corneas in a nutrient medium at close to normal body temperature, extending their storage time to a month.

This not only greatly reduced wastage of valuable corneas but helped to transform routine corneal transplantation in the UK from an emergency out-of-hours procedure to a scheduled operation that could be planned well in advance, to the benefit of both patients and hospitals. Crucially, doctors also have more time to find the most suitable patient for each cornea, which results in better grafts.

Professor Armitage is also an international consultant to the Swedish Corneal Transplant Registry. He has published 77 original peer-reviewed papers and contributed 14 chapters to edited books as well as a range of editorials, published symposia and an edited book on Eye Banking.

He is currently President of the European Eye Bank Association and works closely with the Council of Europe providing guidance on the quality and safety of tissues and cells for transplantation.