Monday, January 24, 2011

An Entrepreneur’s Vision: Restoring Sight to Animals

An East German firm has an answer for dogs who lose their sight from cataracts: custom-made “contact lenses.” Sounds crazy, I know, but cataracts generally mean blindness for dogs, unlike for humans. And because animals have short life spans, it means losing quality of life in a greater share of that life. This may be the answer to every “old” dog owner’s dreams: their little pooch doesn’t have to go blind as they age, but can have clear sight right up to the end.

The procedure is highly delicate, to say the least, and requires special training for veterinarians. It has propelled this small company, S&V Technologies, founded by Bavarian chemist and entrepreneur Christine Kreiner, to global leadership in a highly specialized field.

The acrylic intraocular lenses are implanted into animals’ eyes when their vision has clouded to the point of total impairment. They can be fitted for various species, from cat-eye-sized to fist-width for rhinos. Since launching in 2008, the firm has fielded calls from Sea World in San Diego (for a sea lion with vision problems) to an Australian Nature Park (a blind kangaroo).

The German lenses have helped turn the lights back on for dozens of house pets, dogs, racehorses, and guide dogs -- literally preventing the blind from leading the blind -- and even wild creatures roaming protected nature reserves. Although the expense of such an operation and subsequent checkups can run into the thousands of dollars, the procedure is often worth it for animals that have gone blind -- and for their owners.

“Naturally that is only one side of it -- some are well-loved pets and seen as members of the family and worth any expense,” says Ingeborg Fromberg, head of the company’s veterinary division. The main limit to the growth of this “pet lens” business is a lack of vets able to perform the implantation procedure, which is why Kreiner now organizes training weekends for animal doctors from around the globe. Participants have come from around the globe including Australia, Brazil, Japan. Taiwan and the U.S to learn the delicate procedure within the company’s laboratory on eyes harvested from animal cadavers.

Here’s hoping that my own vet sees this (I will be chatting with him about it) and although I am not sure I’d put my Bichon Frise, Casey, at age 14, through this type of surgery, I’d like to think this could be an option down the road. And the more common this procedure becomes, the more affordable it will be -- now that’s a win-win situation for any dog owner faced with their pet’s diminishing eye sight.

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