Artificial cornea helps blinded man see again

In the summer of 1961, Tony Balik was a 17-year-old high school senior working on an Iowa farm, earning a few bucks before starting college in the fall. He couldn’t wait. Then, in a flash, the lights went out.

An ammonia tank exploded, spraying toxic chemical into his eyes. In an instant, he became legally blind in both eyes. Life changed. The football scholarship he had earned to Upper Iowa University was gone. New plans had to made. What would he do?

Balik refused to let blindness ruin his life. He adapted to his visual handcap and steadfastly forged a new path, including a successful 37-year career as a state social worker. Still, as the years passed by, he held out hope for a miracle. After two cornea replacement surgeries failed, he was referred to the eye specialists at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (home to one of the nation’s Top 10 ophthalmology departments, according to U.S. News & World Report.

There, he was deemed to be a good candidate for the “Boston Keratoprosthesis,” a new way to implant a special type of artificial cornea. The treatment team included three leading University of Iowa ophthalmologists: Kenneth Goins, MD; Young Kwon, MD, PhD; and Stephen Russell, MD. Goins implanted the artificial cornea into Balik’s left eye (his right eye was removed in 1979).  Kwon installed a tube to regulate pressure and prevent glaucoma, a possible side-effect.

Balik couldn’t see immediately after the procedure, but everything changed after the doctors fixed a troublesome blood clot. Amazingly, he was now able to see a large letter “E” on the eye chart. He could visualize the outline of his family, and recognize color. His vision continued to improve from that day forward as his eye healed. Today, his 20/25 vision (near-normal, no corrections) enables him to see clearly. He has re-learned to drive. His scrapbook is filled with photographs of “first” sights—Hawkeye football games, pro baseball, and out-of-town driving trips. “Incredible,” Balik says of the life-changing turnaround. “Just incredible.”

Artificial corneas great for some patients

When the cornea (the dome-shaped window covering the front of the eye) becomes diseased, it may need to be replaced. Unfortunately, standard corneal transplants sometimes fail despite repeated attempts. That’s when an artificial cornea (keratoprosthesis) might be a good option.

The Boston Keratoprosthesis (Boston KPro for short) is an artificial cornea made of a special plastic. Though it dates to the early 1970s, early versions of the device were flawed, resulting in complications. Improvements were made, and the device was approved by the FDA in 1992. KPro success rates have been high. One KPro research study found that:
• 95 percent of implants worked long-term
• 23 percent of patients had vision improvements greater than 20/40
• 57 percent of patients had vision improvements greater than 20/200.

The Boston KPro is available only at specialized eye centers such as the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. For more information about artificial corneas and corneal transplantation, visit http://www.uihealthcare.org/Eye/ or call 319-356-2864.