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Advancements in Eye Implants Are Saving Sight

A new device can treat age-related macular degeneration and replace eye injections for many

rendering of a face with eye closeup. and an inset showing how a visionsaving drug would be released via a tiny implant.
IBRAHIM RAYINTAKATH; Inset Illustration: Susvimo/Genentech Inc.

The news is full of “promising” developments that may “one day” lead to a brighter, healthier future. But for our annual roundup of the latest medical breakthroughs, we decided to focus on game changers that are improving lives today. Here we bring you three new technologies and treatments for vision — an implant that helps those with macular degeneration, eye drops that can replace reading glasses and contact lenses to ease itchy eyes.

When Melinda Roth, 63, tried to read the eye chart during a routine vision check in 2017, the view from her left eye had gone completely dark. “I couldn’t see anything,” she says. “I accused my doctor of playing a joke on me.” A visit to the emergency room at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia revealed that Roth had age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of severe vision loss in people 50 and older.

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​​In her left eye, Roth had “wet” AMD, a fast-moving, advanced stage of the disease in which abnormal, leaky blood vessels damage the macula, the part of the eye responsible for reading, driving, recognizing faces and more. The standard treatment is regular eye injections of drugs to reduce blood vessel growth and leakage. But Roth’s doctor asked her if she would like to join a clinical trial of an “eye implant device” that eliminates or reduces the need for injections by releasing a steady dose of the anti-VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) drug ranibizumab (Lucentis). She said yes. ​​

The device, called Susvimo, is the size of a grain of rice. It was implanted in the upper part of Roth’s left eye, under the eyelid, where it can’t be seen or impede her vision. She received the implant but began her treatment by getting the monthly injections. “After two or three shots, my vision began to improve,” she says. “It went from black to gray to as if there’s a lace curtain in front of my left eye.” ​​

Once her implant was fully operational, she no longer needed injections in her eye — though some people with the implant still get occasional supplemental injections to control blood vessel growth, says Carl D. Regillo, M.D., chief of the retina service at Wills Eye Hospital and principal investigator in Susvimo’s phase 2 and 3 clinical trials. ​​

An AMD drug improved Melinda Roth’s vision.
An eye implant device improved Melinda Roth's vision.
Kielinski Photographers

For Roth, it was a relief. Though the shots didn’t hurt, she says, “nothing can prepare you for the doctor coming at you with a needle in your eye. The hardest part is keeping your hands down, not shooing them away.” Roth still needs regular eye exams and six-month refills of the implant.

The FDA approved the device in October 2021. Research shows it works as well as monthly injections, although it has a higher rate of side effects, including redness, pain and light sensitivity, as well as infection, cataracts and erosion of the surface of the eye. ​​

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The real value of the implant is in maintaining steady doses of the anti-VEGF drug. “If there are gaps in treatment, you lose disease control, resulting in permanent vision loss for many of our patients,” Regillo says. “In the real world, patients often can’t get to the office frequently enough to maintain the gains from their early visits. The patient may not be able to drive to the office themselves and may rely on caregivers. It becomes logistically difficult and anxiety-provoking. The shots don’t hurt, but they aren’t pleasant.”

Acuvue Theravision with Ketotifen daily disposable lenses
Acuvue Theravision With Ketotifen daily disposable lenses release the antihistamine ketotifen to ease itchy eyes, providing relief for up to 12 hours.
Courtesy Acuvue/Johnson & Johnson

Other vision breakthroughs

​​Eye drops that (temporarily) replace reading glasses​​

In a recent study, a statistically significant proportion of people using pilocarpine hydrochloride (Vuity) eye drops saw improvement in the blurry near vision caused by presbyopia (age-related lens changes that affect focusing and impact reading). Improvement in reading vision was seen in as little as 15 minutes and lasted through six hours. The drops were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in October 2021. The drug improves near vision by decreasing pupil size. It may, however, interfere with night vision, so people using the eye drops should be particularly careful driving after dark. ​​

Contact lenses for itchy eyes ​​

Allergy sufferers often have to skip contacts when their eyes water and itch. Acuvue Theravision with Ketotifen daily disposable lenses release the antihistamine ketotifen to ease itchy eyes, providing relief for up to 12 hours. The FDA approved them in February 2022.​​​