Imagine reading a map or email on a head-up display right in front of your eyes — it sounds like something from a sci-fi novel, but it’s one of the many possible future uses for contact lenses that has been predicted through current and emerging research.
“People typically think of contact lenses as just another way of correcting poor vision and being an alternative to spectacles. However, over the past decade we have seen tremendous developments in the potential for contacts to detect eye and systemic disease, in addition to delivering drugs to manage these diseases,” says Lyndon Jones, lead author of the research paper Contact Lens Technologies of the Future, which compiles evidence pointing to the many current and future capabilities of contact lenses. “We already have electronic contacts that can screen for glaucoma, treat itchy eyes due to allergies and photochromic contacts to protect the wearer from bright lights.”
Jones, director of the Centre for Ocular Research & Education (CORE), is considered a top expert on contact lenses worldwide and has been awarded over 40 national and international awards related to contact lens research. His work has led to increased knowledge about the role of highly oxygen permeable soft lenses on ocular health, the interaction of tear film with contact lens materials and improvements in contact lens disinfection and cleaning systems.
Treating and diagnosing disease
Our tears contain a wide range of biomarkers that can help point to specific diseases. Biochemical tear film sensing technology and other sensing technologies, such as blink and eye-movement tracking, are rapidly evolving — paving the way for future diagnostic contact lenses. Current research, for example, looks at measuring tear film glucose for monitoring diabetes. Jones predicts that initially diagnostic contacts will be used to detect and monitor eye disease — there is already a contact lens available that can monitor eye pressure over extended periods of time in glaucoma — however based on rapidly evolving research, contact lenses could eventually diagnose other diseases such as cancer, hypertension or Alzheimer’s. These types of lenses would raise the potential for early detection, improving health outcomes for patients.
In Canada, we are on the verge of the release of the world’s first drug delivering contact lens, from Johnson & Johnson Vision, which will be used for itchy eyes caused by allergies. The potential for drug delivery contact lenses is immense because, compared to eye-drops, they offer a more controlled and accurate delivery of medication for treating ocular diseases, such as dry eye, glaucoma, infection and allergy.
Even now, there are many uses for contacts that go beyond standard vision correction, for example, some lenses are currently being used to control the progression of nearsightedness (myopia) in children, which means a lower prescription and ideally better ocular health outcomes in later life. Exploration of contact lenses that correct abnormal colour vision, which can impact many areas of modern life, is also underway.
Augmented reality technologies have allowed for digital vision enhancements that can be used to magnify objects or increase contrast for those with low vision. This is achieved by capturing real-time outward facing video, which is then projected on a micro-display in front of the eyes. Companies like Amazon and Facebook are already developing their own augmented vision devices in the form of smart glasses. Another company, Mojo Vision, is working on similar tech in the form of contact lenses. These products, which would first be used to help improve the mobility and independence of those with vision impairments, have yet to reach the market but with advancements in nanotechnology and miniaturization of electronics, their future seems promising.
“Novel biomaterials, nanotechnology progress, unique optical designs, biosensing discoveries, antibacterial surfaces and battery miniaturization and power transfer are coalescing like never before. The next several years will see incredible advancements and growth for an expanded contact lens category,” says Jones.
The trajectory of current research suggests that in time contact lenses could be the next consumer wearable smart device, used for entertainment, emails, social media and navigation. Their use in the diagnosis and management of both ocular and systemic disease will also increase over time, allowing for better patient health outcomes.
CORE has a rich history as a leader and innovator in the field of ocular research. With over 50 researchers, support staff and trainees, CORE has strong roots in the School of Optometry & Vision Science at Waterloo and seeks to improve global eye health and vision through advanced bioscience, clinical research and education. For the last 32 years, it has been involved in some of the most meaningful advancements in the history of contact lenses, including the evolution of silicone hydrogel lenses and overnight lens wear, the development of disposable lenses and understanding dropout and dissatisfaction with lens wear. Many of the contact lens and dry eye products on the market today have undergone preliminary testing at CORE prior to regulatory approval and many more undergo later phase testing there once they reach the market.