Illustration by Garry Marshall

The 60-milligram device is implanted into one eye behind the iris. In a normal eye, the cornea and lens focus and reflect incoming light onto the retina. But macular degeneration damages the central retina (macula), causing blind spots. The IMT magnifies images up to 3 times and projects them over the undamaged retina.

Picture this: a loved one sits directly across from you sipping coffee, but when you look at his or her face you see a gaping black splotch. For more than 15 million Americans with macular degeneration disease — a mysterious and potentially blinding condition that chews away at the central retina — this is everyday life. Now doctors are inching closer to a breakthrough treatment for the disease.

VisionCare Ophthalmic Technologies in Saratoga, California, is enrolling patients in a clinical trial to assess the safety and efficacy of its pea-size Implantable Miniature Telescope.
Measuring 4 millimeters long by 3
millimeters in diameter, the telescope is a quartz tube that has microscopic lenses inside and quartz windows on both ends. The device replaces the
eye lens and works with the cornea to magnify and project objects over the undamaged area of the retina. It is implanted only in one eye, which takes over central or “straight-ahead” vision, essential for facial recognition, reading and watching television. The other eye controls peripheral vision.

In initial trials, the results from 14 patients were solid, researchers say, but not miraculous. Patients who have more severe forms of the disease improve more than those who have lesser symptoms. And possible side effects include infection, inflammation and mild discomfort — generally the same as those of cataract surgery. “This lens doesnt bring back the vision people may have had 20 years ago. We dont want to oversell this. But for
people who are more or less functionally blind, this invention is as important as the invention of the automobile,” claims Dr. Steven Lane, who has implanted a half dozen of the devices.

The procedure takes just 45 minutes. Patients are home within four hours, but it can take several months of training to adapt to this new way of seeing: One eye focuses on precise details of whats in view, such as a face — the hair, the ears and the neck — while the other eye zooms in and out.