Written By: Reena Mukamal Reviewed By: William Barry Lee MD
Contact lenses are no longer just worn to boost vision. Newer, smarter lenses will soon perform unprecedented feats, from delivering medicines to projecting a digital display in your eye. Here are the newest trends in smart lens technology, including two high-tech lenses that are available now.
Smart contact lenses you can use right now
Scientists are continually building better contact lens technology to prevent and treat eye diseases, and to improve life for people with low vision. Here are two lenses approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in the past year.
The FDA approved the first soft contact lens for slowing myopia (nearsightedness) progression. CooperVision’s MiSight contact lens is designed for children ages 8 to 12. The disposable contact lens is worn daily. These differ from existing OrthoK contact lenses, which reshape the cornea, by redirecting how light hits the retina. Also, the new lens does not need to be worn overnight.
Contact lenses that darken automatically in sunlight to reduce glare and enhance comfort are entering the market. Johnson & Johnson’s light-adaptive contact lenses have been approved by the FDA. The lenses feature a photochromic filter that continuously adjusts the amount of light entering the eye. They automatically return to a regular tint in normal or dimly lit environments.
Wait till you see these futuristic contact lenses
Scientists are designing high-tech lenses for many uses, from monitoring eye health to magnifying images for people with low vision. These up-and-coming lenses are not yet approved for consumer use. Some are being tested in human clinical trials while others have only recently been created.
A new contact lens that dispenses antihistamines may soon offer relief for people who suffer from allergies. Johnson & Johnson has developed a disposable lens that is preloaded with a medicine that alleviates itchy eyes. This medicine, ketotifen, is continually released from the lenses. This could be especially helpful for people who wear contact lenses and must remove their lenses to apply antihistamine eye drops. The lenses have gone through phase three clinical trials and are approaching approval for consumer use.
Augmented reality lens
A smart contact lens with a built-in visual display is designed to magnify images for people with low vision. The patented lens, designed by a company called Mojo Vision, can project content from a smartphone.
Another company, Innovega, is also working on a soft contact lens that can produce a display anywhere in the eye’s vision. The company says its iOptik system can improve the safety of hands-free tasks like driving, surgery and military operations. The technology is still years away from being ready for consumers, however.
There may soon be a contact lens that can protect the cornea from destruction in people with a condition known as corneal melting. Researchers have developed a new hydrogel contact lens that may stop the disease in its tracks by removing extra zinc from the cornea. The lens could help people who develop corneal melting after autoimmune diseases, chemical burns or who undergo certain surgical procedures. A patent is pending on the new hydrogel.
Detecting damage to the retina
Beijing scientists have created soft, clear contact lens fitted with electrodes. The lens is designed to improve patient comfort during tests that measures the eye’s electrical activity in response to light. Doctors use this test, called electroretinography, to diagnose numerous eye conditions that damage the retina. Scientists call their new technology GRAphene contact lens electrodes, or GRACEs, and they have tested it in rabbits and monkeys. So far, scientists say the contact lenses appear more accurate and comfortable than electrodes mounted on hard contact lenses, the current standard.
Diabetes and blood sugar monitoring
Korean researchers have developed a contact lens that monitors blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.The lens isn’t an entirely new idea. Google and other tech companies have dabbled in similar work. But its new design sidesteps the discomfort and unreliability that plagued earlier attempts to create this type of lens. The updated lens uses flexible materials and a green LED light that alerts patients when their blood sugar reaches unhealthy levels. The contacts have not yet entered clinical trials in humans.
Digital eye strain
A new contact lens by CooperVision, Inc., helps combat eye fatigue associated with digital device use. The Bioinfinity Energys is designed with multiple aspheric curves. This helps people’s eyes better adapt as they move their gaze between digital devices and offline activities. An added side benefit: the lens material is designed to help eyes retain moisture. This is helpful during screen use, when you blink less frequently.
Two types of contact lenses may soon deliver glaucoma medication into the eye. This is welcome news for patients who use highly concentrated eyedrops multiple times a day. More than half of patients miss eyedrop doses. That can lead to blindness. Leo Lens Technology has developed a lens that releases FDA-approved bimatoprost into the eye for up to seven days. The lens has not yet entered clinical trials. A separate group of undergraduate students from Lithuania has invented a dissolving contact lens that continuously releases glaucoma medication. The NanoLens technology aims to boost drug absorption. It won second place at the Silicon Valley Innovation Challenge in 2018.
A soft contact lens with a built-in sensor could help identify patients at risk of progressing to severe glaucoma. The Triggerfish lens by SensiMed received FDA approval in 2016. The lens uses an embedded gauge to measure changes in the cornea’s shape. The cornea becomes stretched when pressure inside the eye increases. The lens transmits information wirelessly to a small antenna worn on the patient’s face. The antenna then sends the information to a portable recorder. Doctors can use the information to monitor changes in eye pressure.
Bionode has developed a gold-trace contact lens and glasses combination system to treat glaucoma. The iOPTx system uses electromagnetic stimulation to reduce eye pressure. Clinical trials of the iOPTx are currently underway in Spain and are beginning in Canada.
Smart contact lenses in development by Samsung could allow you to control your smartphone remotely. The company has been granted a US patent to design lenses with motion sensors. The sensors allow wearers to command devices by blinking and using peripheral vision. Samsung also aspires to have the lenses beam photos and videos directly to the user’s eyes. This technology is years away from entering the market, however.
A prototype soft contact lens that can zoom in and out with a blink of the eye has been developed by researchers in California and China. This could someday be a game-changer for people with retinal damage from conditions like macular degeneration. The teams are currently working to miniaturize the telescopic lens so that it can fit inside the eye. Another team in Switzerland has developed a telescopic contact lens prototype that can shift between magnified and normal vision.
A new contact lens being developed in Australia may be able to fast track healing of open sores on the cornea, known as corneal ulcers. The technology combines a contact lens with corneal cells that are left over from a corneal transplant. The cells release healing factors that soothe stubborn wounds. Researchers believe these cells offer a more consistent and readily available way to treat inflammation than currently available treatments. The lens will soon be tested in humans, but it is many years away from becoming available to consumers.