For the over 30 million Americans who deal with diabetes every day, the potential health complications that mercilessly loom over their heads are overwhelming. Neuropathy, gastrointestinal troubles, and various foot complications make the short list of things that people with diabetes spend their time, money, and energy trying to prevent.
Any help preventing the complications of high blood sugar would ordinarily be met with open arms. But a glowing contact lens? Does that sound like an exciting technological advance—or a foray into cyborg territory?
Colin Cook, who watched his aunt lose her vision, and then her life, to diabetes, hopes that his illuminating contact lens invention will be welcomed by those looking to prevent diabetic retinopathy. The contact is designed to be worn at night and glow just enough to fool the retina into thinking it’s daytime, which means the retina will take in less oxygen, delaying retinopathy.
Retinopathy starts when high blood sugar damages the small blood vessels in the back of the eye. The vessels swell and form pouches and may start to leak. As the disease progresses, these damaged blood vessels close off and new ones grow. But the new blood vessels are weak and are even more prone to leaking and blocking vision. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults, and it can also contribute to retinal detachment and macular edema.
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Colin Cook, a Caltech graduate student, emphasized that because of the damage to blood vessels in diabetic retinopathy, the retina starts to starve from lack of oxygen. The retina is responsible for responding to light and interpreting that light into neural signals so the brain knows what the eye is seeing—without the retina, we can’t see.
The condition progresses the most at night because our eyes, especially the light-sensitive cells of the retina, consume more oxygen in the dark. This puts greater stress on the damaged blood vessels, exacerbating retinopathy. But Cook’s contact lens is designed to emit just enough light so that the retina thinks its daytime and doesn’t consume as much oxygen. This helps preserve the retina’s cells and, therefore, a person’s vision.
Because the contact is so close to the eye and moves with the eye, the glow goes unnoticed by the brain, which means the light won’t keep someone awake at night.
There are currently treatments available for retinopathy, including injections and laser therapy, but Cook hopes his contact will be a less invasive intervention. The contacts glow for up to 12 years, but the lenses will likely be used for about a year or so before a user should replace them.
Cook is hopeful that his luminous invention will start human trials soon. If glowing eyes at night mean clear vision in the daytime, we’ll be happy to try them.