Contact lenses that deliver far more than vision correction

Graphic by Sarah Morasssutti

Newly emerging contact lens technologies from researchers at the University of Waterloo have the potential to change the way people see the world — literally.

Lyndon Jones, director of the Centre for Ocular Research & Education (CORE) at UW is a world-renowned contact lens researcher. His research includes studying the interactions between oxygen permeable lenses, tear film and ocular health. In his recent paper titled, “Contact Lens Technologies of the Future,” Jones covers the numerous possible applications of contact lenses.

“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,” Jones said in a Waterloo News article.“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.”

Contact lenses have the potential to serve as diagnostic tools for various diseases. Tears can serve as biomarkers and contain vital information that, when in proximity to specialized contact lenses, can be used to diagnose and manage various syndromes. 

Currently, research suggests the use of tear film to measure glucose levels can be a viable method of monitoring diabetes. Tear film is a thin fluid layer that covers the exterior of the eye. Through evolving research in biochemical tear film sensing technology, there is potential to diagnose other diseases such as cancer, hypertension and Alzhehimer’s in the future. Lenses such as these will not only manage existing conditions but also lead to quicker diagnosis and detection — a key player in positive long term health outcomes.

“Novel biomaterials, nanotechnology progress, unique optical designs, biosensing discoveries, antibacterial surfaces and battery miniaturization and power transfer are coalescing like never before,” Jones said.

There is one such technology that is expected to be available for consumer use very soon. Johnson & Johnson Vision is expected to release the world’s first contact lens capable of delivering drugs to treat itchy eyes. The advantages to contact lens-based delivery over eye-drops includes better control and accuracy in medication delivery. Patients suffering from seasonal allergies, infections and dry eyes can rely on their contacts to treat these symptoms alongside vision correction.

Other examples of contact lenses already in use are lenses used to control the development of nearsightedness in children. These modified contact lenses can help keep prescriptions low and maintain better vision throughout life. Additionally, lenses that can monitor eye pressure in glaucoma patients over a long period of time can help manage the disease.

Contact lens research may also change the way we perceive and interact with the world. Research in augmented reality (AR) technologies open the door to new realities — one with magnified objects, increased contrast and corrected colour vision. Companies such as Mojo Vision are working on contact lenses that can help people with vision impairments live mobile and independent lives through these technologies. 

“The next several years will see incredible advancements and growth for an expanded contact lens category,” Jones said.

With the many directions the research is taking, there is a likelihood that contact lenses can serve as wearable devices in the future. Viewing entertainment, managing emails, scrolling through social media and navigation are all potential possibilities of contact lens research. Similar AR technologies are currently being used to develop smart glasses by Facebook and Amazon, and it may be just a matter of time before smart lenses become a reality.

As research evolves, so will interactions with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases using contact lenses. The way in which people see the world may also change drastically over the next few years.