A new technique for cornea surgery

September 7, 2009 3:18:18 PM PDT
Every year about 40,000 Americans undergo corneal transplant surgery to clear their vision. It's the most common transplant in the United States. Doctors replace the damaged cornea with donor tissue. One of the challenges -- it can take years for results. Now, a different technique is bringing back vision faster. And it's helped patients like 81-year-old Leroy Geer who used to struggle to see the chords on the music page. Soon he also had to cut back on driving and stopped reading when even large print turned fuzzy.

"It was just so unnerving," said Geer. "You finally got to the point that you just say, it's just not worth trying to figure out what that is."

Both of Leroy's corneas -- the front, clear part of the eyes -- were cloudy and swollen. In standard treatment, surgeons remove the entire diseased cornea through the middle of the eye and stitch in a new one from a donor. Now, using a technique called DSEK, they replace just the damaged inner layer of cells. The incision is small enough it usually doesn't require stitches.

"The donor piece of tissue holds itself on the inside of the eye by the same forces that hold a contact lens on the outside of the eye, but this internal contact lens of tissue never needs to be replaced," said Dr. John Hovanesian, a cataract and corneal surgery specialist at Harvard Eye Associates in Laguna Hills, California.

In the standard procedure, results can take up to a year and vision is often distorted. With the new transplant, vision is back in back in about six months with little to no blurriness. Geer tears up at the results.

"I took a regular Reader's Digest and read it eight days later," Geer said. "Eight days before, I had to stop reading large-print Reader's Digest."

His hobbies never looked so good.

If the disease is in the front part of the eye, patients will still have to receive a traditional corneal transplant. Doctors say with the new procedure, there's about a 5 percent risk the graft will move and need to be repositioned.

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