DON GONYEA, host:
This is a story about an unusual little device that's being used to treat severe vision lost. It's experimental, but it's been proved to work recently. It's a miniature telescope implanted in the eye. The FDA has approved it for people with macular degeneration - a disease that affects millions. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: Marian Orr is 80 years old with a big family: five children, eight grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, lots of graduations, weddings, school events - in other words, lots to see. So when Orr's vision began to declining in her mid 70s, she got scared.
Ms. MARIAN ORR: Gradually, it diminished where I couldn't see. If I looked at you straight on, I couldn't see your face. I'd just see around your head.
NEIGHMOND: Macular degeneration is often inherited, and the blurred vision Orr experienced is pretty typical.
Ms. ORR: I couldn't see the eyes and the nose. I could just see the round head, that was all, sort of like a halo was over it.
NEIGHMOND: So when Orr's cousin read about an experimental treatment, Orr quickly got in touch with one of the researchers, and before she knew it she was one of 219 patients to have a tiny telescope implanted in her eye.
Massachusetts eye surgeon, Kathryn Colby, was one of the researchers involved in the experiment.
Dr. KATHRYN COLBY (Ophthalmic Surgeon, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary): If you think of the eye as an old-style camera that had film in it, and in macular degeneration the film becomes damaged so that the image that's created has holes in it. So, for example, someone who is looking at a face wouldn't be able to see the face. And what the telescope does is by magnifying the image, it allows the part of the vision that's missing to become subsequently smaller.
NEIGHMOND: Which sort of fills in the holes, making the picture that the eye sees more complete. But, like all telescopes, when vision gets narrowly focused, visual periphery disappears, which is why the telescope is implanted in only one eye. The other eye is used for peripheral vision.
Dr. COLBY: So patients need to learn to use the implanted telescope eye for near activities, for example, if they're looking to see what time it is on a clock, but the other eye would be used to scan the room to find where the clock is.
NEIGHMOND: After surgery, patients do eye exercises to train their eyes to work together. It wasn't hard for Marian Orr, who was used to wearing contacts, one for distance and one for close-up. For her, the tiny new eye telescope has put the bustle back into her life.
Ms. ORR: I'm very active in my church. And I am a lunch buddy at one of the schools nearby, go and have lunch once a week with these little children there in first and second grade. I read a lot, regular books, and I could read those. I can read the newspaper. Let's see, I watch TV a lot. I'm busy, that's for sure.
NEIGHMOND: Practically all the patients in the study had their vision improve, and 75 percent of them, just like Orr, had major improvement. But the telescope can damage the cornea. In the study, 10 out of 219 patients had corneal problems, five required a corneal transplant, which is why the FDA is requiring the manufacturer to monitor safety for at least five years. And the eye telescope isn't for everyone.
Dr. GEORGE WILLIAMS (President, The American Society of Retinal Specialists): There you go. Down and left again.
NEIGHMOND: Retinal surgeon George Williams examines a patient at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. Williams is with the American Academy of Ophthalmology. He says the telescope won't work for patients who have had cataracts removed.
Dr. WILLIAMS: Because in order to implant this device, we need to remove the natural lens or the cataract and then use a portion of the natural lens to position and support the telescope.
NEIGHMOND: And for patients in the early stages of vision loss due to macular degeneration, Williams says medications are effective and a lot less invasive than the telescope.
Dr. WILLIAMS: These drugs are injected directly into the eye on a monthly basis. And with that, we're able to prevent severe visual loss in over 90 percent of patients.
NEIGHMOND: So Williams says if patients get treated as soon as possible for macular degeneration, they may never get to the point where they need an implanted telescope.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
GONYEA: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.