Scientists Develop Smart Contact Lens to Detect Eye Infections

December 06, 2022

Scientists are developing a cutting-edge smart contact lens that can detect eye infections in a quick and non-invasive way.

The lens would be the next significant advancement in the worldwide fight against preventable blindness and could eventually be ready for use at home. It might even prevent deaths caused by fungal eye infections in developing nations.

The test is being developed as a result of research done by an international group of experts from the L V Prasad Eye Institute in India, the University of Sheffield, and the University of Bradford.

Currently, determining which bacteria or fungus is present in an eye infection requires an intrusive procedure that involves taking anesthesia and scraping the patient's eye. After two days of culture, the sample is examined under a microscope.

The patient would participate in this new test by wearing the unique lens for an hour, and the findings would be available shortly after. The test may someday be accessible to the general public in the UK and other countries.

"This is vital work that could save the sight of many people worldwide, by swiftly and accurately diagnosing the infection in a much more comfortable way than is currently used. It will also cut down on the mis-prescribing of antibiotics, which means that we will be helping in the fight to reduce resistance to antibiotics that develop in microbes when these medicines are used without properly identifying the cause,” said Dr. Joey Shepherd, senior lecturer in microbiology at the University of Sheffield's School of Clinical Dentistry.

Promising Results Pave the Way for Human Trials

Initial laboratory studies have produced promising results, and human trials will be carried out once further funding is received.

The test could be crucial in developing, tropical nations where eye diseases are sometimes discovered too late to save a person's eye.

"We have produced a smart hydrogel that can detect two types of bacteria and fungus. This device is made from materials that are similar to those used to make contact lenses, which would be safely applied to the eye. The microorganisms get stuck to the material and can then be analyzed,” said University of Bradford Professor of Chemistry Stephen Rimmer.

He added, "The current method is not a nice procedure and it takes time. We are working on how we can produce a visible color change on the lens to show which bacteria or fungus is present. This could then be photographed with a mobile phone and uploaded to a website for an expert to analyze. The expert could then determine whether the patient needs antibiotics or if they require further investigation. Our goal is that someone on the street could do it with no training at all."

Fungal Eye Diseases Dramatically Increase Worldwide

Invasive fungal diseases are becoming more prevalent worldwide, especially in people who have underlying medical conditions or weaker immune systems, according to a World Health Organization report released last month. However, there has been very little research on these diseases. Additionally, it noted a connection between the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in aspergillosis, mucormycosis, and candidemia, as well as proof that fungal infections are becoming more common and spreading across the globe as a result of climate change.

In India, deaths from the "black fungus," also known as mucormycosis, have increased. Diabetes patients and those who have received steroid treatment for COVID-19 are particularly at risk; statistics reveal that these individuals have a death rate of about 50%. The fungus can thrive, according to doctors, because steroids lower a patient's immunity and raise blood sugar levels.

Dr. Prashant Garg, executive chair, of L V Prasad Eye Institute, said, "Eye infections—microbial keratitis—are a major cause of vision loss and blindness worldwide, and more so in India. Timely and correct diagnosis can facilitate the timely initiation of therapy with appropriate drugs and thereby limit vision loss from these disorders. The currently practiced diagnosis method is invasive, time-consuming, and expensive. The 'smart contact lens' technology could be the next big leap in the treatment of eye infections and our collective goal to eliminate avoidable blindness."

The next step is to create a second-generation prototype that can be quickly used outside of a lab setting. The team is also using the device as a cutting-edge method of sending samples to labs for DNA sequencing of bacteria.