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World Blindness and the Future of Laser Eye Surgery

February 24, 2015

The most compelling and frustrating fact about blindness in the world is that it is preventable. In fact, though 250 million people suffer from partial or total blindness globally, four out of five cases can either be cured, or could have been prevented.

Such statistics have put “blindness” on the World Health Organization’s radar as an urgent issue. It is estimated that 32 million cataract operations will take place in 2020, a 20 million rise from 2000.

Dr. Josef Bille, the scientist well known for his invention of laser eye surgery, is leading the initiative. “Laser,” an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” was innovated at his University of Heidelberg lab, and he, himself, was one of his own first test subjects. Since then, he has acquired many patents and spring-boarded companies that, by their concerted effort, have accomplished 280 million laser surgeries. In honor of his tremendous contribution, he recently received the EPO lifetime achievement award. However, instead of dreaming of retirement, the renowned doctor is turning his focus to curing blindness. His bold mission is to eliminate blindness within ten year.

To carry out such an extraordinary goal, he is leveraging the power of femtosecond lasers; ultra short and concentrated beams of light that skillfully respond to the bumps and film of a cataract without any of the cutting that is known to cause irritation or damage.   The lasers are so fine tuned that they boast a highly safe procedure, as well as potentially one that can not only cure blindness, but heighten ordinary vision so that it is twice as good at recognizing detail and five times as good at seeing in conditions of sub-par visibility.

Bille’s Californian company, “Perfect Lens,” has already tailored the process for advanced contact lenses and plans to be in the human testing phase within a handful of years. Another client of his, Technolas, is making available the femtosecond service. Bille has also invented “wavefront” scanning, which produces an ultra detailed scan of patients’ retinas so that surgeons can have an exact map. The scanning can additionally be used to collect information about how the eye is aging. If a doctor can identify micro-morphatic change in the eye, he or she can, then, put into action an early treatment plan to change the course of the cell’s metabolism.

The ophthalmic industry, as a whole, is really excited about these innovations; however they are not cheap. A femtosecond procedure, which could do wonders in the most severe cases, such as that of glaucoma, costs around $500,000 a unit – a price tag that is not only out of reach for developing countries, but very steep for even the richest of the west. As for the doctor who was told that laser surgery was out of the questions thirty years and hundreds of millions of operations ago, it is a worthwhile challenge to bring the best of technology to the most acute suffering. Meanwhile, it may be wise to supplement his brilliant pioneering with simpler methods, such as public service messages about hygiene, measures to end poverty, and early screening.



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