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Researchers receive $6.7 million in federal grants to develop technology to monitor, treat chronic eye diseases


A Purdue University researcher is leading a team that is creating patent-pending smart contacts for glaucoma, neovascularization and dry eyes.

(image Credit: AdobeStock)

(image Credit: AdobeStock)

Research teams led by a faculty member in Purdue University’s College of Engineering will use two grants from the National Eye Institute totaling $6.7 million to further develop specialized smart soft contact lenses that continuously monitor or treat chronic ocular diseases like glaucoma, corneal neovascularization and dry eye syndromes.

According to an NIH news release, Chi Hwan Lee, PhD, is leading the teams that are developing the patent-pending lenses, which can painlessly deliver therapeutic drugs or accurately measure intraocular pressure, or IOP. IOP is the only known modifiable risk factor for glaucoma.1

He is the Leslie A. Geddes Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering in Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and also holds a joint appointment in the School of Mechanical Engineering and a courtesy appointment in the School of Materials Engineering.

Other researchers are:

  • Bryan Boudouris, PhD, Purdue’s associate vice president for research in strategic interdisciplinary research and the R. Norris and Eleanor Shreve Professor of Chemical Engineering in the Davidson School of Engineering;
  • Yannis Paulus, MD, FACS, associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences and biomedical engineering at Michigan Medicine.
  • Shin Ae Park, PhD, DVM, assistant professor of ophthalmology in Purdue’s College of Veterinary Medicine;
  • Pete Kollbaum, OD, PhD,associate dean for research, director of the Borish Center for Ophthalmic Research, professor in the School of Optometry.

Team members also included Jinyuan Zhang, a former Purdue postdoctoral student in biomedical engineering and now a health technologies research and development engineer at Apple, and Yumin Dai, a graduate student in the School of Materials Engineering.

“Working on smart soft contact lenses allowed us to engage in top-tier interdisciplinary research, moving beyond theory to craft real-world solutions that aim to transform eye disease treatment,” Dai said. “We gained hands-on experience in biomedical engineering, materials science and clinical application, equipping us for future healthcare challenges. This project highlights our dedication to merging education with groundbreaking research, ensuring we're prepared to make a real impact.”

The National Eye Institute is one of the National Institutes of Health; the funding comes from the NIH Research Project Grant Program, or R01.

The innovation

Lee specializes in StickTronics, which are stickerlike items that contain electronics or smart technology. He develops wearable biomedical devices that continuously monitor and manage chronic diseases or health conditions unobtrusively.

Some traditional wearable tonometers — devices that measure pressure inside the eyes — are equipped with an integrated circuit chip. This increases contact lens thickness and stiffness compared with a typical commercial soft contact lens, in many cases causing discomfort for patients. The research team’s version is different.1

“To address this unmet need, we developed a unique class of smart soft contact lenses built upon various commercial brands of soft contact lenses for continuous 24-hour IOP monitoring and potentially treatment, even during sleep at home,” Lee said in the news release.

“Our smart soft contact lenses retain the intrinsic lens features of lens power, biocompatibility, softness, transparency, wettability, oxygen transmissibility and overnight wearability,” Lee added in the NIH release. “Having all these features at the same time is crucial to the success of translating the smart soft contact lenses into ocular disease care, but these features are lacking in current devices.”

The NEI grants

According to Lee, the $6.7 million funding from the two NEI grants will further refine the smart soft contact lenses. Concurrently, clinical trials will be conducted in collaboration with Purdue’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the IU School of Optometry and Michigan Medicine to assess the lenses’ biosafety, usability, functionality, therapeutic effectiveness and durability.

“With the steadfast support from NEI, the successful completion of these projects will solidify our path toward introducing an innovative, closed-loop system for these smart contact lenses,” Lee concluded in the news release. “This system will enable simultaneous monitoring and drug delivery for a wide range of chronic ocular diseases.”

Lee disclosed the smart soft contact lenses innovation to the Purdue Innovates Office of Technology Commercialization, which has applied for a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect the intellectual property.2

  1. $6.7M in federal grants awarded to develop tech to monitor, treat chronic eye diseases. EurekAlert! Accessed March 22, 2024. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/1038431
  2. Office of Technology Commercialization - Purdue Innovates. purdueinnovates.org. Published October 25, 2023. https://purdueinnovates.org/otc/
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