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Anna Kelley and Andrew Tangonan are two of the Mercy scientists on the research team for the corneal wound repair project. (Photo provided)

Anna Kelley and Andrew Tangonan are two of the Mercy scientists on the research team for the corneal wound repair project. (Photo provided)

(Springfield) – When an improvised explosive device blows up in the face of an American soldier, medics rush to treat life-threatening injuries. That often means injuries to the eyes, which account for nearly 40 percent of all war wounds, can go untreated for days, frequently resulting in blindness.

Now, scientists at Mercy Research and Development (R&D) in Springfield, Mo., have a solution, thanks to a $4.8 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. Mercy scientists have developed prototype contact lenses capable of delivering medication. They’re designed for medics to apply to soldiers’ eyes right on the battlefield – immediately stabilizing the eye and preserving vision.

“This research project is the most personal thing I’ve done in my career,” said Dr. Shachar Tauber, Mercy section chair of ophthalmology and optometry and principal investigator on this research and product development. “My father was injured in war, causing blindness in one eye and diminished sight in the other. Making sure our soldiers not only live, but live to literally see their families again, is so important to me.”

Other researchers have been working on similar projects for decades, but Dr. Tauber looked at it from a different angle. He had the idea to apply a Nobel prize-winning breakthrough – electrospun polymer fibers – to the world of ophthalmology. “We decided to impregnate those fibers with medication,” he explained. “More than a few experts said it couldn’t be done, but we now have the test results and the patent to prove the science works.”

Mercy researchers have developed several lenses with different uses. One lens can simultaneously deliver a steroid and an antibiotic to reduce swelling and fight infection for up to seven days. When wounds involve lacerations to the cornea, another product works as a sealant to hold the wound shut for up to three days, while also delivering medication. That allows time for the soldier to be transported to a military hospital for surgery.

“Another great thing about this research is its applications beyond military needs,” said Keela Davis, director of Mercy R&D. “The base lens can be infused with just about any drug for the eye and made available to everyone. We know when patients are prescribed eye drops for things like glaucoma or pink eye, the medication only reaches the eye about a quarter of the time. That’s either because the patients don’t use the eye drops, or the medication lands somewhere else. Eye drop installation is difficult, plus tears immediately dilute the drug and wash it away. This solves those problems and will lead to improved visual outcomes for patients.”

Now that researchers have tested prototypes that work, they still have one obstacle to overcome before the contacts can get to the battlefield. “They need to be mass produced,” explained Davis. “We are looking to license the technology to an established company or find an investor to help us set up the manufacturing process here.”

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