Work keeps a ‘smart’ eye on glaucoma

 Glauc bannerWestern Engineering professor Aaron Price and PhD candidate Ben Holness

Western News | August 30, 2017

Approximately 67 million people worldwide suffer from glaucoma, a disease believed to be caused by elevated pressure inside the eye, or intraocular pressure (IOP).

Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of irreversible vision loss globally. It’s treatable only if found early enough. But signs of glaucoma can often be missed since conventional detection methods only present a snapshot of a patient’s natural changes in eye pressure.

Engineering professor Aaron Price is aiming to change that, by developing a contact lens made from smart polymers (plastics that conduct electricity) that can capture a patient’s complete IOP history, ensuring the earliest possible detection for those at risk for glaucoma.

“Your eye pressure naturally fluctuates throughout the day,” Price said. “If you happen to have an eye appointment at the time of day that your eye pressure is naturally a bit lower, you might not be flagged as at-risk.”

Additionally, he added, many people who wear glasses may only visit the eye doctor once every two years, which may not be a sufficient window to capture the onset of risk factors.

“With the smart lens, if the optometrist identifies you at risk for developing glaucoma because of genetic factors, age or a previous borderline measurement, he or she might have you wear one overnight or longer, to collect more comprehensive data.”

That information would be transmitted to a wearable data collection device, and once downloaded, would allow the optometrist to immediately determine if the patient needs to be referred to an ophthalmologist for further treatment.

Developing a transparent and biocompatible contact lens made from smart polymers comes with complications that require novel materials and fabrication technologies, which can be costly in the early stages of research. But thanks to support from Peter Maurice, BESC’60, Price now has the resources to advance his work.

The Peter Maurice Fellowship has allowed Price to retain PhD candidate Ben Holness, whose Master’s research was based on developing 3D-printing techniques for conductive polymers.

“We hope to adapt the facility that Ben’s established during his Master’s project to pattern a single layer of the conductive material for our first prototypes,” Price explained, “and perform some testing on an eye simulator that we are also able to purchase through Peter’s gift.”

By demonstrating the feasibility of the sensor, Price hopes to attract further funding through an industry-sponsored grant competition.

“Peter’s generosity has allowed me to retain a great student, and secondly, it has provided us some seed funding for a new frontier of our research program. It is a great stepping-stone for other opportunities that we wouldn’t qualify for otherwise.”

This is exactly what Maurice had in mind when he established the fellowship, which provides a total of $20,000 per year for a two-year term to a mid-career faculty member who shows promise of developing a new technology to support health care needs.

“I strongly believe that major innovations begin with individuals,” he said. “I am very pleased to be able to support young researchers like Dr. Price, and his team, particularly when my contribution can significantly boost their efforts.”