Ever since age 14 when a teacher spotted me squinting at the blackboard, I've worn glasses. I hate them. They slide down my nose and leave ridges on my cheeks. I'm forever cleaning them, breaking them, or losing them. And don't recommend contacts. Many of my friends say they're a nuisance, too. Besides, the idea of sticking something in my eye has never appealed to me.
Now, however, medical science has finally come up with something that really grabs my attention. A new technology called photo-refractive keratectomy (PRK) promises to give millions of Americans the clear, unencumbered vision they once had as children.
PRK reshapes the cornea with a computer-controlled excimer laser. Don't confuse this with radial keratotomy-RK-in which a surgeon makes a series of incisions in your eye with a scalpel. More than 250,000 Americans have undergone RKs, but this is definitely not for me. One slip of that knife, and .... Enough said.
Engineers at Summit Technology, the nation's leader in PRK technology, assure me that the laser-based method is both safe and effective. Summit's lasers-priced at $400,000 a copy-use high-energy ultraviolet light to cut molecular bonds with relatively little heat. The actual laser bursts, which resculpt the cornea by cutting a series of concentric circles, take a total of less than 30 seconds. Beforehand, a computer scans the eye to determine the amount of correction needed. The entire procedure lasts just 15 minutes.
Summit, based in Waltham, MA, expects to get FDA approval for this system to correct nearsightedness before year-end. But results from several operations performed under FDA investigational device rules show that 90% of patients enjoyed a sight correction of 20/40 or better-good enough to drive without glasses in most states.
PRK could become medical technology's next big gold mine. The cost of the new procedure could be as little as $1,500 per eye, putting the operation well within the reach of many of the 60 million myopic Americans. With FDA approval, you can expect to see laser clinics for opthamology cropping up everywhere.
Like any new technology, more data should be gathered on the long-term effects of PRK. Some patients who have undergone the procedure complain of problems such as glare, halo effect, and lessened night vision. Yet thousands of others who have undergone PRKs in Europe, Canada, and Mexico are quite happy with the results. Howard Apple, VP of R&D for Summit, says that the company's lasers have improved the sight of more than 100,000 people around the world.
Weighing the pros and cons, I'm impressed with the potential of PRK. It could be the best alternative yet to glasses. For other new technical miracles, read the news and feature stories in this special medical issue of Design News.