October 5, 2007

New low-vision technology aims to make reading easier

Featured Image

Jeff Sonsino, O.D., with Helen Carter, who is reading more easily thanks to glasses Sonsino designed to help low vision patients. (photo by Dana Johnson)

New low-vision technology aims to make reading easier

Over the past five years, optometrist Jeff Sonsino, O.D., has resorted to an unorthodox prescription for many of his low vision patients — buy a goose neck lamp, use high-powered reading glasses and select a designated reading spot.

Despite an ever-widening approach to vision correcting techniques, the options for a category of patients with low vision are limited. Nationally, there are about 13 million people with low vision — defined as vision that is not correctable with glasses, contact lenses or surgery. The World Health Organization estimates that number to be 124 million worldwide and expects it to double by 2020.

“In the low vision rehabilitation process, we prescribe optical devices that help people function better, and I found myself prescribing similar prescriptions for high-powered reading glasses for adults and kids, but there was a piece missing,” said Sonsino, assistant professor at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute.

“I could not find any tools out there that would satisfy exactly what each patient needed — magnification, prism correction to help people read at a closer distance and light.”

Although a few devices existed, such as high-powered reading glasses with a prism, they lacked illumination and many were too expensive or bulky.

So Sonsino created his own apparatus — Illuminated Low Vision Glasses. The technology will enable those with low vision to read, something previously too complicated, annoying or expensive for patients to do in the past.

“This design combines the very best of everything the patient needs to read,” said Sonsino, creator of the Center for Sight Enhancement at Vanderbilt. The center, started in 2002, is the only one of its kind in the region and is dedicated to low vision rehabilitation in an effort to optimize the use of the healthy vision remaining in the eye.

The glasses use a high-powered LED light built into the frame, high-powered magnifying lenses and prism correction. The glasses will also be affordable, portable and will not require a prescription.

Patients who may benefit from this technology include those suffering from macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, cataracts and other blinding eye diseases, like ocular albinism in children.

After creating the concept for the glasses, Sonsino turned to Vanderbilt's Office of Technology Transfer and Enterprise Development for assistance with the next step — a patent.

The initial provisional patent application was filed in 2005 and was recently converted into a utility patent application in 2006. Along with the patent applications, Vanderbilt has created prototypes of the glasses and is seeking to license the technology to a company in the eye care industry.

“There has been a lot of interest from companies,” said Peter Rousos, senior business development executive with the Office of Technology Transfer and Enterprise Development. “There is great potential here to help people with low vision as well as other uses. When we have a technology, one that can improve human health, we have an obligation to diligently seek to transfer it into the marketplace. Our job is to find ways to commercialize this innovation and to find that market.”

Rousos estimated that the glasses should cost no more than $50 and have the potential to positively affect millions of people.

“I have shown the prototype to patients with macular degeneration and there are an overwhelming number of them who are very interested,” said Sonsino. “I have a waiting list already.”