SALT LAKE CITY — For many, the thought of sticking a needle in their eye makes them cringe, but for tens of thousands of people suffering from macular degeneration, monthly eye injections to save their sight are a painful reality.
Now, one Utah eye doctor hopes a device he has invented will make those needles a thing of the past. After several years of doing cataract operations and cornea transplants, Dr. Balamurali Ambati thought there had to be a better way to deliver needed medication to his patients' eyes.
"I came at this problem thinking what can a cataract surgeon do about diseases of the retina," Ambati, a clinical doctor and researcher at the Moran Eye Center, said.
Macular degeneration, or damage to the retina, is the leading cause of blindness in the United States. It typically strikes older people or people who suffer complications due to diabetes.
"What is currently done for patients with macular degeneration is they receive monthly injections" to the eye, Ambati said. The injections are needed to keep the retina functioning and prevent blindness, but are very painful, he said.
But the injections to the eye can can also put a patient at risk of infection, bleeding and retinal detachment. He estimated that more than 30,000 patients a year are treated for macular degeneration with close to 1 million eye injections done each year.
"We do try to numb the patient, but in the end it's a needle to the eyeball, and you'd much rather have a needle to the vein than to the eye," Ambati said.
Over the past three years, Ambati has developed the iVeena device. It is a tiny, clear horseshoe-shaped ring that can be implanted in the area behind the eye's lens during cataract surgery. The ring is designed to hold a reservoir of medication, which passes through a time-release membrane and can deliver eye medication for six to 12 months. Using a small incision, the iVeena device can be "recharged" with new medicine through a needle and small valve, sparing a patient from ever having a direct injection.
Ambati is working on a biodegradable version.
The device can also deliver glaucoma medication, which is currently treated by having a patient use eye drops. In his experience, Ambati said many glaucoma patients forget to use their medication.
"What's nice about this ring is it makes the patient's life easier," said Dr. Greg Jones, CEO of iVeena, the company created to develop, produce and market the product. Jones is the former executive director of research at Moran and former science adviser for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. He is currently working at the scientific computing and imaging institute at the University of Utah.
Jones, who has helped Ambati on the business development side, said they focused on using already previously FDA approved materials and medications to speed up the FDA approval process. Jones and Ambati said even with pre-clinical research finishing up, the device could be on the market in five years.
Ambati has a background as remarkable as his latest invention. Having graduated from college at 13 years old, he completed medical school at 17. He did his ophthalmology residence at Harvard and cornea research fellowship at Duke.
Officials at Moran said they like to encourage their clinical physicians and researchers to create their own medical devices. Dr. Randall Olsen, Moran CEO and chairman of the U.'s department of ophthalmology and visual sciences, said creating products helps further Moran's cause in preserving and restoring eye sight.
Ambati's research is funded in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.