Smart contact lens prototype raises eyebrows

Smart contact lenses are a sci-fi trope, but they may also offer hope for sufferers of certain kinds of debilitating eye ailments. That’s the goal of new research into a a tunable, low-powered iris embedded in a smart contact lens.

It’s a good example of the growing role of nanotechnology in human augmentation and therapeutics. The human iris controls pupil size in response to light, a critical function that allows the retina to take in appropriate sensory information. Too much light and the world is washed out, too little and it’s veiled in darkness. A host of eye diseases and deficiencies inhibit the iris from responding appropriately, including aniridia and keratoconus. Light sensitivity, similarly, is a painful debilitation and is often associated with chronic migraine.

Researchers at Imec, an innovation hub based in Belgium, along with partners like CMST, a Ghent University-affiliated research group,  the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria Fundación Jiménez Díaz in Madrid, Spain, and Holst Centre have been developing an low-powered wearable solution. The contact lens’s iris aperture is tunable thanks to an integrated liquid crystal display (LCD) that manipulates concentric rings. 

“By combining our expertise on miniaturized flexible electronics, low-power ASIC design and hybrid integration, we have demonstrated the capacity to develop a solution for people who suffer from iris deficiencies, higher order aberrations and photophobia, a common yet debilitating symptom seen in many neuro-ophthalmic disorders,” says researcher prof. Andrés Vásquez Quintero at Imec. “Our smart contact lens can control the level of incoming light mimicking a human iris and offering a potential solution to vision correction – by expanding depth-of-field with automatic control of pupil size. This way, our approach can surpass current solutions to combat human eye iris deficiencies. Its beneficial optical effects will be further clinically validated and developed into a medical device.”

Utilizing an ultra-low power design, the lens can be used for an entire day without a recharge. The research was presented in the Nature-affiliated publication Scientific Reports and demonstrates the lens’ potential in expanding visual sharpness, decreasing optical aberrations, and reducing the amount of light entering the eye in a dynamic manner. 

“It is imec’s aim to create added value for the society and bring our research to the market,” says Luc Van den hove, president and CEO of Imec. “We are convinced that this artificial iris prototype has all the potential to become a game changer in ophthalmic treatment. Therefore, we have launched an incubation project together with imec.xpand to fully support the team’s ambition to mature and validate the technology and support their efforts to commercialize via a strong business case as a spin-off.”

Research transfer is an area of emphasis for Imec, which plans to develop the prototype into a medical device. The first step is validation with patients and volunteers