— For Wayne Rodgers, a 70-year-old retiree living in Tucson, Ariz., simple daily activities like buttering toast or pouring a cup of coffee once bordered on the impossible. Five years ago, after his vision had been getting progressively blurry, Rodgers was diagnosed with macular degeneration in both eyes.
"I hope you didn't drive over here," Rodgers quoted his doctor as telling him at the time, "because you're legally blind."
The macula, located at the back of the eye, is responsible for central vision. When that area is damaged through macular degeneration, a blurry spot is created in the center of that field of vision, leaving only some peripheral sight.
An estimated 8.7 million Americans, nearly all seniors, are affected by macular degeneration. Rodgers is among the 1.6 million within that group who have an advanced form of the disease. For Americans over the age of 55, macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness.
Like millions of other sufferers, Rodgers initially received a dismal prognosis: that there was nothing he could do and that he should just learn to live with the problem.
He suddenly found himself unable to drive, relying on his wife, Shirley, to take him everywhere. He became unable to see the faces of family and friends standing right in front of him. The only way to attempt to read a newspaper was to use bulky reading machines or magnifying devices, all of which he found tiresome and frustrating to use.
Implanted Telescope Magnifies Images
But Rodgers is starting to see the world differently now. He is part of a clinical trial for a device called the IMT, or implanted miniature telescope. The pea-sized device is being implanted in the eyes of nearly 200 patients with advanced macular degeneration around the country. VisionCare Ophthalmic Technologies, a Saratoga, Calif.-based company, manufactures the IMT and is conducting the trial.
To implant the device, surgeons remove the lens of one eye and then replace it with the IMT. The tiny device works like a telescopic lens, enlarging the images that come into the eye.
"The advantage is it simply magnifies all objects so that it casts a larger image onto the retina, usually above and below and to both sides, of the central spot that has been destroyed by the macular generation," said Dr. Henry Hudson of Tucson, a retina specialist who is overseeing Rodgers and eight other patients in the trial.
The patient's brain must then learn to superimpose the magnified image from the eye with the IMT over the peripheral view from the unimplanted eye. This does not happen overnight.
Rodgers does eye exercises every day, practicing with large-print flashcards with his wife. He can now play solitaire for the first time in years, which also helps test his newly magnified vision.
"My old brain is pretty tough to try to penetrate and get the left eye to look far and the right one to look close," Rodgers chuckled. "But I'm working on it."
External Devices Can Mean Limited Activities
Until now, people suffering from macular degeneration generally had to rely on various external sight-enhancement devices. Glasses with a small telescope attached can help with distance, while basic magnifying glasses are for closer vision and reading. Large reading machines enlarge the print of a book or newspaper and transmit it onto a screen.
But like Rodgers, patients often complained such wearable or external devices were bulky and hard to use, in addition to making it harder to interact with others. The IMT is the first device that could help these patients regain some of their lost vision by being implanted in the eye itself.
Vision therapist Tom Perski, who is working with Tucson patients involved in the clinical trial, suffers himself from macular degeneration. He says the implant provides people with the disease the hope of a wider range of activities beyond even just reading again or seeing the television.
"Often in low vision, we concentrate on reading and writing and things indoors," Perski said. "Now we're going outdoors, and we're looking at the world … that's never been done before."
Any hope of improvement, he says, is progress. And Perski says he has been amazed at how well the trial subjects, whose average age is 79 years old, have allayed his concerns over how they would adapt to the device.
"You put something in their eye — are they going to lose their balance, are they going to be tripping and falling?" Perski said. "I haven't seen any of that."
Trials Are Promising
Those involved in the trial say results have been promising and that there have been no serious complications among patients.
Trial subjects from an earlier and smaller clinical trial of the IMT have shown promise after a year with the implant. According to VisionCare, 77 percent of those patients could see two or more lines better on an eye chart with the device, and 62 percent had an improvement of three or more lines.
The positive results from the initial trial allowed VisionCare to expand to more patients in the second trial. The company hopes to gain Food and Drug Administration approval after the completion of the current clinical trial, which is expected to take two years.
VisionCare stresses that the device is not a cure for macular degeneration, but rather an aid to help patients regain some of their lost vision. Hudson agrees, adding that patients see improvement only after a good deal of therapy on how to adapt to their new vision.
"It's not a cure — it's a device, it's a tool," Hudson said. "And it requires a learning process."
As for Rodgers, the device has already shown great promise in the months since his surgery in March. He is now starting to see the faces of his loved ones again for the first time in five years.
Rodgers says even at his advanced age, he was not worried about volunteering for the experimental procedure. He hopes his experience might provide valuable research to help others with the disease.
"They might put it in the next person and they might be able to see better," Rodgers said. "They can help somebody from what they learn from me."
It's already providing Rodgers with a better glimpse of a world he says he often didn't appreciate while he still had his full eyesight.
"When you lose it, you look around and think, why gosh, I just took that for granted," Rodgers said.
With his new implant, Rodgers is getting a second chance to start taking a second look at the world around him.