Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A Laser Process for Changing Brown Eyes Blue

`Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue' was a smash hit song(1) for Crystal Gale in 1977. But it has been a wish for many a young girl with brown eyes (and even some older ones and perhaps some men) ever since. Over the years it has been possible to turn your brown eyes blue using contact lenses, first lightly tinted ones, which really didn’t do much for dark brown eyes, and later opaque tinted lenses, which would cover brown pigmented eyes and really turn them blue (or green or even other colors), although they created an opaque light eye, which does not exist in nature and thus looks contrived. There are even a couple of surgical procedures that can transform the iris, or enhance/darken the edge, but the question of safety quickly arises with any surgical procedure.

So, a week ago, when my wife told me what she had just seen that there was a laser process to turn brown eyes blue, on The View, I replied, “No way”. You see, I was a consultant to the medical laser industry, involved in the use of lasers in both ophthalmology and cosmetic surgery, for over twenty years and had never heard of lasers used in this way. Just to be sure, I Googled it, and much to my surprise, yes, a company, Strōma Medical Corporation, in Laguna Beach California, is developing a permanent, non-surgical laser procedure that will turn brown eyes blue!

I found an article written for Ophthalmology Business(2) that explained how they were doing it. It also listed a couple of well-known ophthalmologists – Perry Binder and Marguerite McDonald, who I know on a personal basis – that are involved with the company, on their Medical Advisory Board, thus assuring me that this business was legitimate. I got in touch with my ophthalmologist friends and they put me in touch with the Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer of the company, Dr. Gregg Homer, to learn more.

What I have learned is that the company has developed a unique, low intensity, highly specialized laser and diagnostic aiming system (with computerized iris mapping and tracking), that targets the brown pigment on the front surface of the iris, removing some or all of that pigment, thereby revealing the natural blue eye lying below.  (The blue in an eye is actually the result of the scattering of white light entering the iris, by tiny grey collagen fibers called “stroma”, and the reflection of the shorter blue light, similar to the light scattering of sunlight by atmospheric molecules that makes the sky appear to be blue.)

A half treated eye (for illustration purposes).

As explained by Dr. McDonald in the Ophthalmology Business article, describing how the procedure works, “This is a Q-switched neodynmium YAG laser, which produces a very highly discriminatory photo-absorbed frequency. The laser fires a series of small, computer-guided pulses across the iris, to photo-disrupt the stromal melanocytes (the brown pigment). Because of the photo-absorption properties of this laser, the energy passes through the clear cornea and it very selectively hits the brown melanocytes, leaving the cornea and the posterior iris stroma totally undisturbed. The photo-disrupted melanocytes release cytokine protein molecules into the anterior chamber and the cytokine signal recruits macrophages...that engulf and digest the photo-disturbed melanocytes as cellular debris.”

To put it in simpler terms, the laser beam “breaks up” the brown pigment in the front part of the iris into much smaller particles, similar to the way lasers are used to remove tattoos, by a process known as “selective photothermolysis”(3). This phenomenon, invented by Drs. John Parrish and Rox Anderson of the Wellman Laboratories of Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, uses the principle of delivering pulsed laser energy to a selected chromaphore within the target tissue, without damaging surrounding tissue.

Illustration of the iris in cross section, showing the anterior border layer, which is the target of the Strōma Medical process.

The smaller particles are then digested by the macrophages formed and eliminated from the iris and from the anterior chamber via the normal liquid outflow channels in the eye.

The Story Behind the Story

According to Dr. Homer, he became interested in the concept of changing eye color in the late 1990s, discovering a paper in the literature on iris pigmentation by RC Eagle Jr.(4) “I finally found that paper, which wasn’t available digitally, and I thought, ‘Now that we’ve done so much work with lasers on dermal pigment, it should be fairly easy to remove that iris pigment safely, which should, in turn, reveal a blue eye.” He went on, “Around 2001, I personally funded a small study at Cedars-Sinai Eye Institute in Los Angeles. We took brown-eyed rabbits and proved the concept, showing that we could change an eye’s color. These rabbits don’t’ have blue eyes, but what we showed is we could (safely) remove the pigment.”

In 2009, Dr. Homer and his colleagues raised $2 million in a Series A round to form the company, build a prototype laser device, and open a clinical trial. They achieved their goals, successfully treating 17 patients in Mexico with solid efficacy and no adverse events.

The Procedure

The Strōma Medical  procedure is non-invasive. It involves no incisions or injections of any kind. In fact, other than the use of a small device to help keep the patient's eyelid open during the procedure and the application of a mild topical medication, there is little or no contact with the patient's eye.

The patient sits in front of the Strōma  laser, and his or her head is stabilized. The patient is instructed to direct the untreated eye toward a tiny animation, located about one foot from the patient's eye, while the procedure is completed. The procedure is then repeated to treat the other eye.

The Strōma Medical Laser work station.

The treating physician will inform the patient when he or she may drive and return to work. In most cases, the patient should be able to do so shortly after the procedure. For the first week or so following the procedure, the irises will get darker. Thereafter, they will grow progressively lighter, revealing the underlying natural blue color. The full color change process should take two to four weeks following the procedure.

Where Does the Process Stand?

According to Dr. Homer, the Strōma Medical laser process, which takes about 30 seconds per eye,  is still being clinically tested before being released commercially, first outside of the U.S.

To date, the company has completed preclinical studies on 50 Dutch-belted rabbits, and clinical studies on 17 human subjects treated in Mexico. The company is preparing its’ first large-scale pilot clinical study in Costa Rica, involving about 20 patients. Following the successful completion of that pilot study, the company plans to treat about 100 additional patients in multiple countries and follow them for a predetermined length of time. 

The company plans to release the product when it and the governing regulatory bodies are satisfied with the safety and efficacy of the procedure. Due to the relative cost and complexity of releasing a cosmetic medical device in the United States, they expect to release the procedure outside the United States first. The order of release in the non-U.S. territories will depend upon the market demand and regulatory environment in each territory.

Remaining Questions

The technique appears to be non-invasive, safe, and  painless. The laser treats only the front of the iris and does not enter the pupil or treat any portion of the inside of the eye where the nerves affecting vision are located.

But several questions do remain:

1.What happens to the pigment debris that leaves the iris? Will that debris clog up the normal drainage channels in the front of the eye, which can in turn cause glaucoma?

Strōma Medical claims that the digested particles released by the process are too fine to cause glaucoma and can easily pass through the trabecular meshwork and out into the anterior chamber -- and that even if there were any complications, they would be short-term and easily remedied, including the use of a standard laser procedure - selective laser trabeculoplasty (SLT), commonly used to eliminate pigment from the trabecular meshwork that might contribute to a rise in intraocular pressure. However, a small risk still remains, and the remaining studies are intended to address that risk prior to commercial release.

2. Don’t the pigmentary layers of the iris provide ultra-violet and infrared light protection to the lens and the retina in the back of the eye? Won’t removal of one of the layers increase the likelihood of cataracts and increased retinal problems due to increased ultra-violet and infrared light exposure?

Dr. Homer acknowledges that naturally light eyes tend to be more sensitive to bright light. He explains, however, that light eyes are not only less pigmented on the front surface of the iris, but throughout the eye, including the retinal nerves in the back of the eye that respond to light.  Light sensitivity, he maintains, is the result of less retinal pigment, not less pigment on the front surface of the iris.  Because the procedure is limited to the removal of pigment from the front surface of the iris, its removal would not increase light sensitivity. Instead, the procedure is able to achieve something that nature does not – a light eye without light sensitivity.  

3. How much will the procedure cost?

According to Dr. Homer, the procedure would likely cost about $5,000 for both eyes in the U.S., but the physicians doing the procedure would set the price, not the company itself, and it would likely vary depending upon territorial demand curves and currency fluctuations.

4. What will be the costs to the ophthalmologists?

The financial model for the procedure will follow LASIK – the laser device (which will be sold or leased), a maintenance contract for the device, and a per-procedure fee. The pricing has not yet been determined, but the company expects the device and service contract to cost less than those for LASIK, and the per-procedure fee to cost more.

5. Have you estimated the size of the market? Perhaps using the tinted contact lens market as an example?

According to market research done by the company, the relevant potential worldwide market for manufacturers of eye color changing products will be those people who have dark eyes (brown or hazel), are affluent enough to afford the procedure cost, and are 20-60 years of age. When the market is mature, 10.2 million people worldwide could have their eye color changed each year.  The largest patient population for the Strōma Medical’s system may be in India and China, followed by Central and South America, Southern Europe, Japan, Korea, the Middle East, and the United States.

Further, the company believes that the market for permanent eye color change will be the fastest growing segment of the aesthetics market over the next ten years. The market will be made up of individuals who have the money and the desire to change their eye color. The annual sustainable, and achievable market opportunity for companies in this space is estimated to approach $2.9 billion in five years. For physicians and their clinics, the market opportunity could be $9.3 billion. Early adapters of the technology will come from the 25 million patients who currently wear colored contact lenses, and the estimated 70 million patients who have stopped wearing them for aesthetic, comfort or an adverse response reason. But, the market could be much larger as the consistency of the results and a positive safety profile is confirmed through solid clinical studies.

6. Finally, do you have any IP protection? What’s to prevent a laser manufacturer to build both a laser and a diagnostic and aiming system to compete directly with you - in fact, isn’t there an entity in Barcelona that is now providing the service?

The company has an extensive international patent portfolio, which includes international patents covering several critical elements of the laser device and patents in the U.S., Singapore, and Australia covering any method or system using any form of electromagnetic radiation to alter iris color. The company also has additional protection covering various ancillary features of the procedure, such as its proprietary iris mapping and tracking technology, scan pattern, and beam profile.

The company claims that the physician in Barcelona was using an off-the-shelf laser designed for laser iridotomy and posterior capsulotomy, which is ill-suited for iris color change. As a result, many patients were injured – the local medical societies opened an investigation, and the physician appears to have discontinued the procedure.

To obtain more information about the process and the Strōma Medical laser, please visit the company’s website at this link.


1. Story Behind the Song: ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’
2. Brown to blue: Procedure changes eye color, Erin Boyle, Ophthalmology Business, July 2013

3. The theory of selective photothermolysis predicts that the selective thermal damage of a pigmented target structure will result when a sufficient fluence at a wavelength preferentially absorbed by the target is delivered during a time equal to or less than the thermal relaxation time of the target. ("Selective photothermolysis: Precise microsurgery by selective absorption of pulsed radiation", RR Anderson and JA Parish, Science, 220:524-527, 1983.)

4. Iris pigmentation and pigmented lesions: an ultrastructual study, Eagle RC Jr., Tran Am Ophthalmol. Soc., 1988;86:581-687.

5. Strōma Medical Website.