An eye-drop solution that aims to assist the healing process after laser vision correction surgery is the latest innovation to spring from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, and apparently the best project the lab had to offer for 2000.
The drops - and their APL creator Dr. David M. Silver - were named invention and inventor of the year at an APL awards ceremony last month at the southern Howard County campus.
The plasminogen activator drops, which stimulate an enzyme that helps the eye to heal itself, are not in clinical trials, but a Salt Lake City medical company has grabbed the option to license the technology.
To win the prestige and the $2,500 prize that he shared with two co-inventors from Hungary, Silver beat out finalist nominations of a computer network firewall system, a laser-based ultrasound system that can help dentists assess tooth structure and an invention that uses sound waves to help engineers determine the level of corrosion in the metal that forms the framework for bridges.
About 135 inventions from 225 inventors were submitted for the second year of the award, according to Wayne Swann, director of APL's Office of Technology Transfer.
"It's a lot, when you look at the amount of sponsored work here," Swann said. "I don't think it's a blip; I think it's a measure of what's here. The types of technologies have been very broad-based - a lot in sensors, biomedical, computer science, engineering."
Silver, a 30-year-veteran of the lab, said he began working on the winning project in the spring of 1999, as he finished a professorship at the Wilmer Eye Institute. His co-inventors, Andras Berta and Adrienne Csutak from the University Medical School of Debrecen in Hungary, have studied the enzyme that activates plasminogen for decades, he said. The enzyme, routinely present in tears, triggers several other activities in the healing process.
Csutak was working on a fellowship at the Baltimore clinic at the time, and the two began to discuss a common side effect of laser vision correction - some patients would develop a haze and cloudy vision months after surgery.
Researchers have not determined in general the percentage of patients who develop the haze. Some research papers on the topic cited none, while others noted as many as 40 percent, Silver said. In his test group of 42 patients, about 8 percent developed the abnormality.
An analysis of the tear composition of the group showed that while all the patients' tears were nearly identical before surgery, some patients had a drop in the enzyme after surgery. Their enzyme levels returned to normal after a short time, but the drop was significant, Silver said.
"The finding that some patients had a different behavior was the accidental finding," Silver said of the research. When the patients were tracked, the scientists discovered that it was those with an enzyme drop after surgery who developed the haze. Silver and his co-inventors were able first to induce the haze in trials on laboratory animals, and then develop a solution to prevent it. The group is finishing its pre-clinical research on the drops and expects to have a battery of data on the eye drops within months.
Silver envisions the eye drops being used as a preventative step for every patient, much the same way as antibiotics are used for other surgeries' patients. The drops are not harmful to those who heal well on their own, but the theory is that for those who need it, the plasminogen activator is necessary within the first five days after surgery, he said.