Can contact lenses deliver drugs? New research team aims to answer the not-so-new question

Could a common prosthetic device correct patients' sight and dispense eye meds at the same time? Researchers in India and Australia think so, and they've joined forces to explore an often studied—but little used—drug delivery route that could simplify treatments for allergies, pink eye and even vision loss. 

Scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney and Uka Tarsadia University in Gujarat, India, struck a research pact to put engineers, pharmacists, optometrists and chemists to work on a contact lens delivery system.

Mark Willcox, Ph.D., professor and director of research at UNSW’s School of Optometry and Vision Science, spearheaded the collaboration to help provide simpler treatments to patients with conditions like dry eye and conjunctivitis as well as glaucoma and macular degeneration—the leading cause of vision loss in people over the age of 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Ocular diseases are usually treated using eye drops, but unfortunately these often do not deliver enough drug or have the drug resident on the eye for long enough,” Willcox said in a university press release.

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One member of the research team, Alex Hui, Ph.D., has already published a number of papers investigating the delivery potential of contact lenses. In 2017, he authored a study exploring vitamin E diffusion barriers, molecular imprinting, drug reservoirs and more as potential technologies to administer drugs via contacts.

Of course, Hui isn't the only academic researcher who's explored contact lenses for drug delivery. Back in 2015, Myrto Korogiannaki, a Ph.D. student at Canada’s McMaster University, set out to develop a contact lens for glaucoma patients. Korogiannaki’s lens used hyaluronic acid for the controlled release of the drug to the cornea.

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Big Pharma has had its own contact lens projects, too. For instance, Novartis'  former eye care division Alcon penned a deal with Google—later its healthcare business Verily—to develop and commercialize its “smart lens” technology. Alcon's immediate aim was to develop a lens that could monitor glucose levels in diabetes patients, and the project was expected to yield a commercial product by 2019.

Illustrating just how tough high-tech contacts can be, Novartis canned the diabetes smart lens in late 2018. Verily said at the time the team had failed to consistently measure glucose levels across the tear film of the eye and couldn't draw a correlation between glucose levels in tears and those in the blood.