A group of engineers at the California Institute of Technology has developed a pair of contacts that might be able to treat diabetic retinopathy. Although it’s only in its initial phases of development, these exciting glow-in-the-dark lenses show great promise for treating this common complication of diabetes.
These new contacts are designed to work by reducing the amount of oxygen rod cells need at nighttime. Since rod cells require more oxygen to help us see in dimly lit areas, they often use up almost all the oxygen available in the retinae while we are asleep.
By using glow-in-the-dark lights on these new contact lenses, Caltech researchers believe they can cut down the oxygen rod cells need, thus slowing down the retinae’s metabolism. By making more oxygen available to the eyes, these contacts should slow down the progression of cell decay in diabetic retinopathy patients’ eyes.
Engineers used small vials of tritium to create the glowing light in these contact lenses. As the tritium decomposes, it lets out electrons that are then turned into a glowing light when they go through a thin phosphorescent film.
The vials in these contacts only become activated as the user’s pupils naturally dilate in dim areas. Since the sun causes our pupils to constrict, patients can wear these contacts during the day without worries.
Many scientists have tried to use increased light to the eyes during sleep to stave off diabetic retinopathy with little success. Patients who tried out these night-light eye masks often saw a flicker of light every time their eyes moved which made it almost impossible to fall asleep.
These new contacts avoid the issues associated with night-light masks because they travel with the user’s eyes when s/he falls asleep. Also, these contacts are able to determine the exact amount of light necessary by measuring the pupil size.
Researchers say initial tests using these contact lenses show that they can effectively reduce rod cell activity during nighttime by close to 90 percent. The scientists behind these contacts plan to run more tests in the ensuing months and apply to the FDA for permission to run clinical trials.
Venture capitalists are already excited by these new potentially revolutionary contact lenses. At the recent TigerLaunch event sponsored by Princeton University, the Caltech team took home third place for its new contact lenses.
Over time, diabetes puts great strain on blood vessels in a patient’s body. Without enough blood flow to the retinae, retinal nerve cells slowly deteriorate.
Unfortunately, diabetics can’t effectively re-grow healthy retinal nerve cells. In fact, the new nerve cells that end up growing in the retina are so weak that they start bleeding and cause the eye to form scars. These scars lead to the serious visual symptoms associated with diabetic retinopathy.
While there’s no treatment for diabetic retinopathy, there are many therapies doctors can use to halt the disease’s progression. For these therapies to be effective, however, optometrists need to catch diabetic retinopathy in its early stages. This is a major reason eye doctors recommend everyone with diabetes get an annual eye screening.