UCSD team is developing telescopic contact lenses

Courtesy Joe Ford, UCSD

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a prototype for telescopic contact lenses.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), UCSD and a team of collaborators recently completed the first clinical trial on a lens that magnifies vision by 2.8 times. They expect the lenses to help seniors with age-related vision loss, or macular degeneration. Military officials also see potential to use the lenses for situations where soldiers need increased vision capabilities, lead researcher Joe Ford told CBSNews.com

Users will wear a unique set of glasses that work with the lenses in technology similar to that of 3D televisions. The glasses feature liquid crystal sensors, which communicate with polarizers in the lenses.

A wink detector, which is still in development, allows wearers to switch between 2.8 times telescopic magnification and 1 times normal vision. By winking their right eye, they will switch on the telescopic vision. Winking their left eye switches the lenses back to normal vision. Without the special glasses, wearers would see 2.8x and 1x all at once, creating a sense of double vision. The company Rockwell Collins is helping to design the glasses.

UCSD collaborated with Switzerland's Polytechnic School (EPFL) to develop the optical technology for the lens. The primary challenge was designing the physical shape of the lens. "Making an optical component fit into a convex millimeter layer was fairly tricky," explained Ford. "The second challenge was to make a structure that would be wearable in a long-term contact lens." The research team, in collaboration with Paragon Vision Sciences and Innovega, is still working on the right mix of materials to allow for proper corneal oxygenation and overall fit.

"We have to redesign it to make it compatible with conventional contact lens materials, to make the lens from a combination of oxygen permeable plastics and make it as thin as possible," he said. The first round of clinical trials did not "produce the image quality we need, and is not yet suitable to extended wear."

Age-related vision loss, or macular degeneration, is one of the most common causes of blindness. It damages part of the eye, the maca, which handles fine detail. As the maca continues to degenerate, it becomes difficult to recognize the details of a face or to perform simple tasks. These lenses may prolong wearers' ability to drive, cook and care for themselves.

Current treatments for macular degeneration involve invasive surgery or wearing thick glasses. Ford estimates that a more wearable version of the lens will be ready for clinical trial around November. At this stage, he is quick to note, the lenses are no where near the point of commercial availability.

The project emerged out of an earlier DARPA-funded project, Montage, which sought to use diamond-turning precision optics (common in telescopes) in a thin camera lens.

"This shows promise, and we like to think it will someday be available, but we're still in a research stage," Ford added. "We're no where close to anything that anyone could come in and try."

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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