Tiny telescope implant helps restore age-related vision loss

by Jane Derenowski, Producer /  / Updated 

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Jim Hindman, the co-founder of car maintenance service Jiffy Lube was 55 when his eyesight started to fail. The problem started as a tiny black dot in the center of his vision at first, but the blind spot grew. As the years passed, Hindman, now 77, had trouble reading and making out faces.

The low point, Hindman says, came when his age-related macular degeneration forced him to give up his driver’s license. “That was, I think, the moment of despair,” Hindman told NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman. “I began to get depressed. I began to get angry.”

Age-related macular degeneration, a slowly developing condition that can make it difficult to recognize faces, drive a car or read, typically affects people in their 50s and older. As baby boomers age – and as lifespans continue to increase -- the numbers of people are expected to surge.

The worst part for Hindman was learning there was no way to stop the deterioration. While there are some therapies for the wet form of macular degeneration – a more advanced, severe condition -- treatments for the dry form, which afflicts Hindman and millions of other Americans, have been mostly limited to magnifying glasses.

That wasn’t enough for Hindman, a college coach, and a racehorse owner. He found doctors at the Wilmer Eye Institute at the Johns Hopkins Hospital who have been helping patients see better with a tiny device that can be surgically implanted in the eye.

The device was given Food and Drug Administration approval and is now covered by Medicare. For those paying out of pocket, the cost of the device is $15,000, not including surgery or rehabilitation.

When people develop macular degeneration, they lose their central vision as the middle part of the retina becomes increasingly scarred over. Because the surrounding areas are unscathed, their peripheral vision survives. So they are able to see what’s beside them, but not what’s in front of them.

At the institute, doctors implanted a miniature telescope behind the iris of Hindman’s left eye. The device magnifies what’s in front of Hindman and projects it back onto the parts of his retina that haven’t been destroyed by the disease.

“The advantages of the telescope are that people can see detail much more clearly -- people’s faces, television, looking out into the world,” says Dr. Judith E. Goldstein an assistant professor of ophthalmology and chief of low vision services at the Wilmer Eye Institute.

Still, the device is not a panacea. “It’s important that patients know that this device is not going to allow them to drive,” says Dr. Oliver D. Schein, a professor of ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute. “It’s not going to let them read small print. But it may take someone who has had to give up reading entirely and get them to the point where they can read large print.”

Beyond that, the device requires months of therapy. It’s implanted in only one eye because it takes away peripheral vision. As a result, patients need therapy to help rewire their brains to use one eye to see directly in front of them and the other to see everything else.

The rehab isn’t for the faint hearted. “The therapy at first was very exhausting,” Hindman said. “I can remember at the end of a two hour session, just getting in the back seat of the car and going to sleep.”

But Hindman says it was all worthwhile.

“I hate to use the word miraculous,” he says. “But it has been miraculous. The change in my psychological outlook on life was dramatic.”

And while he knows that the telescope is not a cure it is allowing him to once again to actually see the things he loves, including the beautiful Thoroughbreds dotting his pastures.

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