Groundbreaking Lasik Eye Surgeon Predicts the “End of Blindness”
Can one LASIK eye surgeon save the world from blindness? It’s a tall order seeing as how the condition affects 250 million people from all around the world. The leading causes of chronic blindness include conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, corneal opacities, diabetic retinopathy, trachoma, and eye conditions in children caused by vitamin A deficiency. Most tragically, four out of five cases are preventable or curable. This kind of needless suffering has turned into a top priority for the World Health Organization, who is now expected to perform up to 32 million cataract operations in 2020 (up from 12 million in 2000).
A key figure in the World Health Organization’s progress is the pioneering LASIK eye surgeon and scientist Dr. Josef Bille. He invented eye surgery lasers in his lab, at the University of Heidelberg, and was one of its first test subjects in 1986. Since then, Dr. Bille has filed almost 100 patents and helped to found five companies with around 1000 employees, which provide the vast majority of the 280 million laser surgeries performed throughout the world.
You would think that after receiving the German Future Prize, the European Inventor Award, and, more recently, the EPO lifetime achievement award, the now legendary LASIK eye surgeon would be ready to retire. Surprisingly, the groundbreaking ophthalmologist is not ready to bow out just yet, as he sets his sights on a new ambition: femtosecond lasers.
Femtosecond lasers are ultra-short and focused beams of light that efficiently target the bumps and film of a cataract. What is so revolutionary about them is that they accomplish this without cutting into the cornea. Femtosecond lasers are so precise that they can pinpoint specific molecules in the eye and adjust their focus, all while not causing any collateral damage or complications during healing.
“It’s a treatment which can make every eye perfect,” says Bille. “We call it perfect vision, it is twice as good as normal vision, so you see twice as fine detail at much better contrast… Five times better contrast vision at dim lighting conditions, rain or in foggy areas.”
Working with a new California company called Perfect Lens—made up of a group of collaborating scientists who develop cutting edge optical physics and technologies—Dr. Bille has worked to adapt the cut-free process into plastics for advanced contact lenses. They expect to have the lenses in a living human in the next couple of years.
But Dr. Bille hasn’t stopped there. He has also been on the forefront of developing other inventions to take on blindness in the 21st century, including what he refers to as “wavefront” scanning. This new way of mapping the retina will allow surgeons to tailor their procedure right down to the last detail. Not only that, but these “ultra-scans” can provide information that could be used to forestall the effects of ageing. Wavefront scanning accomplishes this by detecting the first signs of deterioration of the functioning of proteins inside the cells twenty years before the onset of micro-morphomatic change in the eye.
“If we have look at the 50-year-old patient, and detect it early enough, you can set treatment which interferes with the metabolism of the cell,” says Bille.
But it isn’t just Bille who is excited about this new technology. Other top researchers also see the potential in his work. “Femtosecond technology has really surged in the past two to three years, with a lot more applications for it,” says Laura Straub, Editor-in-Chief of Cataract & Refractive Surgery Today Europe magazine. “Femtosecond cataract surgery is really coming into its own, allowing more precise treatments… and taking out the manual aspect of the procedure.”
The only problem is the price of each unit for a femtosecond procedure, which could be more than $500,000.
“The cost is a huge factor, with a ‘click fee’ (for each use) in addition the system itself… the developing world is not going to have access for some time.”
Straub still feels the femtosecond procedures could have a major impact in the fight against conditions such as glaucoma, but keeps her prospect for the future practical. Instead she is looking to far more basic methods to tackle the more immediate causes of blindness, such as early screening used to prevent impairment in many of the worst affected parts of the world.
But Bille isn’t dismayed by doubts of his peers. After all, he was told that laser surgery would not work—and that was over thirty years and hundreds of millions of operations ago. The world’s leading ophthalmologist has always been motivated to try new things people say couldn’t be done, and that’s why he stays very optimistic about the projects he’s embarked on, predicting “There shouldn’t be any blind person ten years from now in the world.” Let’s hope he’s right, again. [Sources: World Health Organization – www.who.org, CNN.com]