Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Health

Researchers explore new uses for contact lenses, from drug dispensers to blood glucose trackers

If you've ever struggled with trying to get those tiny eye drops in just the right spot, read on.

A team of researchers has come up with a new type of contact lens system that gradually delivers medication to your eye while you wear the lenses. That's right: no more fumbling for the vials on your overcrowded bathroom counter and squinting into the air as the first few drops plop on your face, nose, ears and anywhere but where they are supposed to go.

The design, described this week in the journal Ophthalmology, is elegant, at least as far as these types of medical innovations go. The contact lens has a thin film that holds a medication, but only on the periphery so that the middle is clear. That middle part can be designed with no refractive power (for those of you lucky enough to have 20/20 vision) or to correct nearsightedness or farsightedness, as contacts usually do.

The research was conducted using latanoprost, a medication for glaucoma, and looked at how the contact lenses performed versus traditional daily eye drops. This was a very early study, and it was done on monkeys. The researchers are testing similar systems in clinical trials on humans, but those results are not available yet.

Glaucoma is a serious eye disease and the leading cause of irreversible blindness. There's no cure, but you can slow down the progression by using drops that decrease the pressure on your eye. The problem is that the medications can cause a burning sensation, so many people don't use them as they are prescribed or give up on them entirely. Janet B. Serle, a specialist in the disease who works at Icahn School of Medicine at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, explained that the new contact lens "removes the burden of administration from the patient and ensures consistent delivery of medication to the eye, eliminating the ongoing concern of patient compliance with dosing."

The Ophthalmology study is just one example of the recent work to upgrade your regular old contact lenses.

Working toward another glaucoma innovation, the Columbia University Medical Center is looking at different ways to have your contact lens work as a sensor to monitor the progression of the disease.

Verily, formerly the Google life sciences unit, is working with Swiss pharmaceutical maker Novartis on a smart contact lens that can help diabetes patients track their blood glucose and signal them when it appears to be out of whack.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are developing technology, based on how the elephantnose fish sees, that continuously adjusts in concert with one's own cornea and lens. In an announcement earlier this year, researchers said they have to overcome several engineering challenges: "They include designing the lens, algorithm-driven sensors, and miniature electronic circuits that adjust the shape of the lens, plus creating a power source — all embedded within a soft, flexible material that fits over the eye."

The University of Michigan's Zhaohui Zhong, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, is working on a super-thin film that can sense wavelengths our eyes can't see and that can be put in a contact lens. That could eventually lead to contacts that have thermal vision.

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