Electronic contact lens could change our grasp of disease, treatment

Although news of "bionic vision" and holographic images, courtesy of a special contact lens being developed here at the University of Washington, may be thrilling those in the entertainment and gaming industries, Tueng T. Shen, MD, PhD, is far more excited about the lens' possibilities for continuously measuring IOP and retina activity, or improving low vision.

As the co-investigator on this Hollywood-esque device, Dr. Shen, director, Refractive Surgery Center at the University of Washington, is hoping to develop the lens for a wide variety of health-care and disease monitoring.

Successful teamwork

The group's work, recently presented at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' international conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems, has attracted an enormous amount of attention from the media, manufacturers, and the general public, said Dr. Shen, who is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Washington. The device has not yet been tested in humans, but she says with a laugh, "we have no shortage of volunteers who want to test the device."

The researchers have successfully tested the device in rabbits, which have worn the lens under general anesthesia for up to 20 minutes. Dr. Shen hopes to gain permission from the university's institutional review board to test the lens in humans in the future.

Although the general public might be tantalized by thoughts of cruising the Internet without a screen, Dr. Shen hopes the lens will allow ophthalmologists and vision researchers to obtain essential parameters of the eye wirelessly and continuously. For example, she mentioned assessing the effects of glaucoma medication on IOP and measuring a retina's electrical activity without attaching wires to a patient's eyes.

"All of those are very exciting topics that can literally change the way we understand diseases and how we treat them," Dr. Shen said in an interview with Ophthalmology Times. "I can envision that patients could wear a contact lens for a week, and wear a little computer at their belts, and they can constantly acquire information about parameters in their eye. They can either come back or wirelessly submit data, and we can get an idea of how their IOP is doing, or if the treatment is effective."

Today, a patient undergoing an electroretinogram must wear a contact lens and lie still while wires attached to the lens monitor the retina's response to light flashes under light and dark conditions. A specially designed contact lens equipped with a wireless transmitter could allow patients to be tested under less stress, Dr. Shen said.

Researchers hope to power the device with a combination of radio-frequency power and solar cells placed on the lens.

Attracting attention

Dr. Shen said she is flattered by all of the interest being shown in their work. A university press release about her team's presentation has generated among the university's highest Web site hits on record, she said. However, Dr. Shen and her colleagues are proceeding cautiously. She added that her new ophthalmology department chairman, Russell Van Gelder, MD, PhD, has been very supportive of her interdisciplinary research collaborations. The National Science Foundation and a Technology Gap Innovation Fund from the University of Washington funded the research.