New Surgeries Restore Youthful Vision

Boomers and senior often can shed reading glasses

By Victoria Fung, CBS.MarketWatch.com 8.29.04

LOS ANGELES (CBS.MW) -- As a tennis umpire for collegiate matches, Bonnie Hartshorn worried how long her vision would remain razor sharp.

Then she noticed how not having a pair of reading glasses always at hand was taking the joy out of her favorite hobbies.

"I make jewelry and a lot of crafty little things, but that became impossible," says Hartshorn, 57. "I could not find a way to get a needle or pin through a bead."

When a friend told Hartshorn about a ground-breaking type of surgery, she consulted her ophthalmologist and had the procedure done a year ago. Today, free of glasses, Hartshorn's blue eyes shine -- and so does her vision.

"It's terrific," she says. "I can read the smallest print on a pharmaceutical bottle. It is so delightful. I can't even begin to tell you what a joy it is."

The desire by baby boomers like Hartshorn to age gracefully and reclaim some of their youth is driving innovation in vision correction. Thanks to new technologies, a growing number of the 80 million boomers in the U.S. are doffing their bifocals and granny glasses and regaining the vision quality they enjoyed in their 20s.

In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved use of a procedure called conductive keratoplasty, or CK, to correct presbyopia, a condition typically seen in people over 40. In middle age, the natural lens inside the eye loses flexibility, causing near vision to fade. The condition affects tens of millions of Americans, forcing most to wear reading glasses to see up close.

With CK, a tiny probe applies radio waves in a ring near the outer edge of the cornea. The radio-frequency energy heats up collagen to create a tightened band of tissue. The treatment makes the center of the cornea steeper, increasing the curvature and improving near vision.

CK works best for people who have enjoyed good vision and now contend with presbyopia. Though the cornea sometimes reverts to its original shape, most people enjoy long-term results and can have the procedure repeated.

Dr. Robert Lingua, an ophthalmologist in Fullerton, Calif., performed Bonnie Hartshorn's CK surgery.

"I had the procedure about a year-and-a-half ago," Lingua says. "The results are excellent." Because CK is minimally invasive, he says, the risk is much lower than most other types of eye surgeries.

At $1,500 to $1,600 per eye, it also tends to be less expensive.

Lingua performed CK on a colleague, Dr. Mark Golden, earlier this month. Immediately after the surgery, Golden was able to read much smaller print.

"This is finally the first great technology," says Golden, 48, an ophthalmologist who runs a LASIK clinic in Schaumburg, Ill., and has performed CK on a number of patients himself. "There's almost nothing that can go wrong with this. It's quick, it's painless, it's easy. This is going to be a great thing for a lot of people. A very safe procedure that will change a lot of lives."

Irvine, Calif.-based Refractec (refractec.com) - which developed the surgical device -- first received FDA approval for CK to treat farsightedness in 2002. The 11-year-old company has seen sales of its CK device soar since receiving approval for treating presbyopia last spring.

Chief Executive Mitchell Campbell says gross revenue rose more than 60 percent in the first six month of this year, vs. the first half of 2003. "Year over year, we anticipate 50 to 60 percent top-line revenue growth."

Campbell projects that privately held Refractec will reach profitability in the second half of next year.

A level of clarity

Research analyst Michael Lachman of ThinkEquity describes the market for presbyopia treatment as "really kind of staggering, with easily a market potential of over $1 billion in the U.S. and $1 billion in Europe.

"But I think the most promising technologies for presbyopia are the accommodating intraocular lenses," Lachman adds.

Those are new implants for people with cataracts, like 65-year-old Henry Fakhouri. The clouding of his natural lenses coupled with presbyopia was making his job as a bank service manager tough.

"It was really annoying," Fakhouri says. "I was frustrated with myself when I used to go to work and had to have some of my coworkers read things for me.

"I almost gave up on my eyesight, really. I kind of said, 'Hey, maybe it's time to retire,'" he recalls.

Earlier this year, his ophthalmologist in San Clemente, Calif., Dr. John Hovanesian, suggested the revolutionary Crystalens. The hinged artificial lens, approved by the FDA last November, replaces a patient's cataract-tinged lens and moves with the ciliary muscle in the eye, enabling clear vision near, far and in between.

Fakhouri had a Crystalens implanted in each eye last April.

He recalls, "The surgery took place on a Thursday, I took off from work on Friday, stayed home over the weekend. And Monday morning I was at work with no glasses. Shocked everyone!

"Now I'm more rejuvenated, more excited. I don't need to worry about seeing, about reading small print, about spending time on the computer. I look up in the trees and I see the difference: the browns, the greens, all types of colors I didn't see before," Fakhouri says.

And at a cost of $5,000 per eye, he declares, "It's the best investment I've ever made in my life."

Says Hovanesian, his surgeon: "Ninety-seven percent of our patients are able to pass a drivers test without corrective lenses and also read a newspaper comfortably without glasses. And that's an incredibly gratifying thing to give to patients."

Eyeonics (eyeonics.com) of Aliso Viejo, California, says sales of its Crystalens were double the company's expectations in the first half of this year. And the aging population globally is bound to fuel sales.

Cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness worldwide. With nearly 3 million procedures performed in the U.S. last year, cataract surgery is among the most common surgical procedure for Americans over 65 years of age.

"It's an enormous market opportunity," Eyeonics Chief Executive J. Andy Corley says. "In North America and Western Europe, there are 375 million people over the age of 50. And that number is going to grow 25 percent in the next 25 years."

Corley says that, after six years, privately held Eyeonics just recently became profitable.

Competition among accommodating intraocular lens (IOL) developers abounds. HumanOptics of Germany, also has a mechanical accommodating IOL available outside the U.S. Bausch & Lomb and Visiogen are developing accommodating IOLs that use two lenses to allow a range of vision near to far.

In addition, LASIK - the laser-surgery technique used to treat other vision problems -- is in testing to treat presbyopia.

The new technologies are allowing some people to enjoy their later years glasses free, often with the best vision they've ever had.

Says Fakhouri: "Now I can go and hit some golf balls, which I was never able to do before. I always missed. And the best thing is now I can go to any sunglass store and pick out the best designer shades I can find - and look really cool!"