Glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness around the world, has prompted a number of researchers to seek out better treatments for the condition. Recently, a University of Dayton, Ohio, research team focused on nanomaterial engineering received a second patent for a medical drainage device intended to reduce intraocular pressure in patients with glaucoma. Notably, the device could be used in other parts of the body — including the brain, chest, and ears — to facilitate drainage, but its primary application is in patients with glaucoma.
In the United States, more than 3 million people have been diagnosed with glaucoma, a condition in which the eye no longer drains fluid naturally and intraocular pressure starts to build. The pressure eventually leads to damage of the optic nerve and loss of eyesight.
While there are a number of intraocular drainage devices, the new option stands out because it is created from a unique material that prevents the growth of fibroblast cells, which can accumulate on drainage devices and eventually cause blockages. Many drainage devices are made of silicone, which stimulates fibroblast growth so the device must be replaced and patients are at risk of accumulating scar tissue or developing an infection.
In contrast, the team from the University of Dayton used a unique material called “fuzzy fiber.” The material is a carbon scaffold covered with specially treated carbon nanotubes, which give it a “fuzzy” appearance. It is these nanotubes that prevent the growth of fibroblasts.
The Remarkable Engineering behind the Nanomaterial
The team won its first patent in 2010 for a drainage device made entirely of this unique material. The second patent applies to a coating made from the same material that can be applied to existing devices. In this process, ophthalmologists can choose the optimal device for the patient’s needs and then apply the coating to discourage fibroblast growth. Since the material has already been approved for patient use, no FDA trials are required to bring the coating to market. So patients may begin benefiting from this new coating material in the near future, in the form of a drainage device with significantly improved longevity.
The nanomaterial was initially created as the key component in an engineered “smart” material that can be used in the manufacture of aircraft, wind turbines and other large-scale commercial devices. The researchers behind it were looking for a material to detect ice on a turbine blade and then produce heat automatically to de-ice the blade. Only after the fuzzy fiber was created did the researcher behind it realize its potential use in the treatment of glaucoma.
The Nanomaterial Application in Treating Glaucoma
In glaucoma, damage occurs slowly, and people may not notice any symptoms for a long time. When their vision becomes compromised, the damage cannot be reversed, though it can be slowed or stopped. Prevention or early treatment are the mainstays of vision preservation.
Patients typically first use pharmaceuticals to manage their intraocular pressure, but these options are not suitable for some patients and they often lose their efficacy over time. When this happens, patients may undergo a procedure to create a hole in the eye to promote fluid drainage. However, in response to such a wound, the body will naturally promote the buildup of scar tissue to close the hole.
Silicone, the traditional material used in drainage tubes to keep the hole open, is not recognized as a foreign material by the body. This means the tube can become encapsulated by fibroblasts as part of the healing process and the scar tissue can block fluid drainage.
In contrast, the nanotubes that cover the surface of the new “fuzzy fiber” undergo chemical modification to discourage the accumulation of fibroblasts. Since the material is still biocompatible, the immune system will not launch an attack on it. Tests by the researchers demonstrated the fuzzy fiber’s superiority over silicone — when they covered carbon scaffolds with silicone, fibroblast cells proliferated.
Potential Medical Applications of the Fuzzy Fiber
The fuzzy fiber material was also used to produce Nano Adaptive Hybrid Fabric (NAHF-X), a smart material that can be tailored for a number of different needs, such as electrical and thermal conductivity, energy storage and conversion, thermal management, chemical sensing and more. The use of this material to treat glaucoma was revolutionary, and using it as a coating for tubes, stents and other implants opens up a number of new doors for medical applications of the technology. As previously mentioned, the material may be used in the creation of drainage devices for several other parts of the body, including the ears, brain and chest. In addition, it has potential applications for vasculature as an access point to large veins and arteries.