New Procedure Saves Kids' Sight

Kids with damaged corneas used to have few options.  Now, a unique procedure is giving them back their sight.

We've been able to transplant corneas in adults to return sight. Because sight requires both the eye and a developing brain, we did not do them in very young children, until now," Dr. Bruce Hensel said.

The way four-year-old Abby Riggins plays "tag" with her older brother, you'd never know she had an eye problem at birth.

"Her eyes were different. They were glossy blue, with nothing else to them," mother Jannette Riggins said. 

Abby was born with congenital glaucoma, and the pressure in her eyes started to stretch her corneas.

"Over time the eyes became more cloudy, and had the central scarring right in the middle,"  Father Elgin Riggins said. 

Abby's vision was gradually obstructed right at a critical time in her development.

"You are not born with a sense of sight. You are born with an apparatus that is not quite functional. It's becoming functional, but yet, you have to learn how to use it," according to Eye Specialist James Aquavella, M.D.

"For adults, cornea transplants are an option, but a child's immune system rejects them within weeks. So we're impllanting artificial corneas in kids," Aquavella said.

The implant has two parts - the most important, the clear optical piece that brings light and images into the eye.

"So that little plastic device that is 3, that is 3 millimeters in diameter has all the optics in it to accept light rays and project them in the back of the eye," Aquavella said. 

Once it's implanted, it's permanent, and the brain starts learning about sight.

"Within a matter of a couple of weeks, they're seeing as well as that eyeball is ever going to see," Aquavella said. 

With on-going care from an eye specialist, kids like Abby will continue to get close-up with the world.

Fast facts:

  • 40,000 cornea transplants are performed in the u.S. Annually.
  • About 20 percent of donor corneas get rejected by the recipient's body.
  • Children are especially prone to corneal transplant rejection because their immune system is very healthy and active.
  • A corneal surgeon at the university of rochester medical center, is one of a few physicians worldwide using an artificial cornea implant in children.

Find more information about the boston keratoprosthesis.

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