NIH-funded researcher making progress on nature-inspired 'smart' contact lens

'Smart' contact lens--Courtesy of NIH

By taking his inspiration from nature, including the elephant nose fish, insects and arthropods, the University of Wisconsin's Hongrui Jiang is making progress on a "smart" contact lens that can automatically refocus, to the benefit of those with presbyopia, or the stiffening of the eye, which causes difficulties focusing on nearby objects.

He received the NIH Director's New Innovator Award in 2011 from the National Eye Institute.

Engineering challenges he faces include "designing the lens, algorithm-driven sensors, and miniature electronic circuits that adjust the shape of the lens, plus creating a power source--all embedded within a soft, flexible material that fits over the eye," the NIH says in a release.

Jiang designed the sensors based on the natural ones found in the elephant nose fish, which lives in dark, muddy rivers. "The sensors must be extremely small and capable of acquiring images under low-light conditions, so they need to be exquisitely sensitive to light," he said in the release.

Now he's developing a miniaturized solar cell to power the device, enabling it to change focus.

Clinical testing is still 5 to 10 years away, according to the NIH. But the project has the potential to help the more than 1 billion people across the world with presbyopia.

"There's a huge market for this and with mass production, the cost is not likely to be a barrier," Jiang said.

- read the release