Engineers at Columbia University have developed a new non-invasive procedure to permanently correct near-sightedness as well as a handful of other visual impairments including far-sightedness, astigmatism, and irregular astigmatism. The results from preclinical models, published in the journal Nature Photonics, have so far been extremely promising.
Near-sightedness (aka myopia) affects twice the number of people in Europe and the US than it did just 50 years ago. In East Asian countries, figures are even higher and between 70 and 90 percent of young people now require glasses or contacts. Compare that to the 10 to 20 percent who did so 60 years ago. These stats are only expected to get higher and scientists think they know why: children today are spending too much time indoors.
There are several solutions available to people with near-sighted vision today, though none that are permanent and complication-free. Contact lenses and glasses are the most common (and simple) options but as much as you might love your Warby Parkers, they are just a temporary fix. Vision corrective surgery may have a high success rate. It's also invasive and can lead to permanent vision loss (albeit in very rare cases). Then there's laser eye surgery, which again has a high success rate but can thin and weaken the cornea, potentially leading to other visual problems.
The technique developed by the Columbia researchers, led by Sinisa Vukelic, a lecturer in the department of mechanical engineering, again involves lasers. But unlike other laser treatments, it avoids optical breakdown of the corneal tissue.
Instead, the laser spews low-energy pulses at a high repetition rate at the affected area to change the shape of the cornea. According to the paper, the key to this procedure is that the induction of low-density plasma ionizes the water molecules in the cornea, which creates an oxygen-containing molecule. These form chemical bonds with collagen fibrils in the eye, altering the mechanical properties of the corneal tissue. Importantly, this method changes the macrostructure of the cornea without the breakdown of corneal tissue. This means that treatment would be suitable for those who might not be able to undergo other corrective solutions because of dry eyes, thin corneas, and other visual problems.
"If we carefully tailor these changes, we can adjust the corneal curvature and thus change the refractive power of the eye," Vukelic said in a statement.
"This is a fundamental departure from the mainstream ultrafast laser treatment that is currently applied in both research and clinical settings and relies on the optical breakdown of the target materials and subsequent cavitation bubble formation."
And it's not only those with visual impairments that could benefit from this new technique. Vukelic says it can be used to treat a range of conditions that involve collagen-rich tissues, such as osteoarthritis.
As of right now, the procedure has only passed the preclinical model stage. Clinical trials are expected to start later this year.