More than 285 million people around the world have vision loss and blindness. No matter what the degree, losing some or all of your sight can be emotionally devastating, says Anne Sumers, MD. She's an eye doctor and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

"It's very hard for any individuals to feel like they're losing their independence, and being able to see is a huge part of that," she says.

But the good news, Sumers says, is that advances are being made every day in the diagnosis and treatment of various eye diseases.

"This is probably one of the most exciting times in ophthalmology in terms of developing technology that can help people who were once blind be able to see again," she says.

One advance might make reading glasses a thing of the past. KAMRA, a thin ring inserted in the cornea, improves the vision of people with aging eyes. The device is approved in several countries in Europe, Asia, and South America, and it's currently under FDA review. It improved near vision in 80% of the people who tested it, but the FDA raised concerns about safety issues, including hazy vision. (Editor's note: The FDA approved KAMRA on April 17, 2015, after this story was originally published.)

Other promising works in progress include advances in drugs, stem cell treatments, and even a bionic eye. Many of these discoveries have been made in the last decade.

Once such area where treatment has come along very quickly is with macular degeneration, a disease that affects nearly 2 million Americans. It causes blindness by damaging part of the retina.

"Prior to 7 years ago, we had no good treatment for macular degeneration," says Abdhish Bhavsar, MD. He's a retinal surgeon and spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Now, he says, there are several good treatments for the more-damaging "wet" form of this disease, including several drugs and a cold laser technology. Several drugs are being tested for the "dry" form, but there are no approved treatments yet.

"Many of these people (with wet macular degeneration) have not only very good vision, they're still writing, still doing things with their families," Bhavsar says. "That has changed the entire way we treat this disease."

Macular degeneration is only one cause of worsening vision, though.

"There are inherited retinal diseases. If we can target some of those genes with stem cell therapy or other treatments, that will be monumental," Bhavsar says. "Or what about the ability to build small factories inside the eye to produce a substance you need?"

This approach, he says, is already being tested to treat the inherited eye condition retinitis pigmentosa.

Trials are also under way of artificial retinas -- sensors in the eye that are connected to a small computer that interprets light signals and sends that information to the brain.

"For those of us who grew up in the ‘70s watching The Six Million Dollar Man, and being fascinated about the possibility of the bionic eye, today it's actually being done," Bhavsar says.

Some of the most exciting developments, though, are coming in the form of stem cell treatments.

Eye researcher Bruce Ksander, PhD, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, says stem cells are the future.

"There has been quite a bit of work that's been going on in the area of eye diseases using stem cells," he says. "The eye is a very accessible organ, so unlike the brain where you actually have to get inside the brain, it's fairly easy to place things next to the retina, or right on the surface (of the eye)."

Ksander's own work -- along with Markus Frank, MD, and Natasha Frank, MD, at Harvard -- focuses on using eye-specific stem cells, called limbal cells, to treat a particular kind of blindness.

"The surface of the eye is covered by a very clear cornea, which is essential to vision," Ksander says.

When that cornea is damaged -- specifically, when these limbal stem cells are no longer able to make a clear coating to cover the eye -- nearby cells take over and make a coating that isn't clear.

"It's a really sad clinical situation because the only thing that's preventing people from seeing is that they can't maintain a clear cornea," Ksander says.

Their research has uncovered a way to find these cells, harvest them, and implant them into eyes that have been damaged by burns or chronic diseases.

They also use adult stem cells, which can be harvested directly from the affected person, and force those adult cells to re-create the limbal cells that have been damaged.

Ksander says two other types of stem cells -- human embryonic and induced pluripotent -- are also being researched to treat eye diseases.

In one study, researchers are making stem cells into a specific type of retinal cell. The hope is that by creating and implanting new cells, this may restore vision for people with macular degeneration.

"I think the really exciting part is that these clinical trials are starting, so it's no longer practice or speculation -- it is being applied," Ksander says. "It would be great to have in the next 10 years new stem cell treatments that can slow or reverse blindness in patients, and I think that is a very achievable goal."

Even with all of the advanced technology on the horizon for eye diseases, Sumers says the best treatment is prevention.

"A significant portion of my older patients come to me when they have already lost some of their vision, which is unfortunate, because if they come in earlier we can help preserve their vision or slow down the disease with treatments," she says.

But she, too, is excited about what the next several years will bring to her profession.

"The seed of hope for significantly reducing rates of blindness with these technologies has been planted, and we're all excited to see it grow."

Slideshow: See What's in Store for Eyes

Say Goodbye to Reading Glasses

Tired of reading glasses that slip down your nose or get lost? A small ring dropped in your eye might soon do the same job with less hassle. The doctor inserts the device, called a corneal inlay, under the eye's outer surface. When it’s in place, you can easily see near and far at the same time. The device is in use elsewhere in the world. There are 2 U.S. versions in the works. One, KAMRA, is FDA approved.

Tiny Diamonds Deliver Medicine

People with glaucoma rely on eyedrops to prevent pressure buildup in their eyes that can lead to blindness. But it can be hard to get a true dose and to take them on schedule. Researchers from UCLA may have solved both problems with contact lenses made from super-tiny nanodiamonds. Coated with time-release medication, they put the right dose in the right place at the right time. The project will move to animal studies soon.

New Use for HIV Medications

Talk about a new purpose -- doctors found that drugs most often used to treat HIV and AIDS can also help with a leading cause of blindness: age-related macular degeneration. So far, the drugs -- called nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) -- have been tested only in mice, so there's a long way to go before they're approved for people. When they are, the good news is they're already on the market, they're not costly, and they're safe.

3-D Printing and Your Eyes

A traditional glass -- or more likely acrylic -- eye can cost $5,000 and take hours to mold and hand paint. And even then it may never look quite right. Thanks to 3-D printing, the cost for a prosthetic eye could go as low as $150. Plus, the new technology allows for precise color matching with the existing eye. The project, a joint effort between Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University and London’s Fripp Design, aims to have eyes ready for market within a year.

Gene Therapy Might Restore Sight

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley placed a gene into the retinas of blind mice that allowed the animals to tell whether lights were flashing. They added a chemical "switch" to help brain cells respond to light. This technique also helped restore sight in dogs. With luck, one day it will work in humans. 

Could Your TV Diagnose Glaucoma?

Scientists at City University London mapped eye movements while people watched TV. They found that healthy eyes follow a different path than ailing ones. The study is in early days, but the researchers hope it will translate into easier -- and earlier -- diagnosis and treatment for glaucoma and other conditions. It could be a huge help in places where people don’t have access to an eye doctor or clinic, but they can sit down and watch a screen.

An Implant to Sense Glaucoma Pressure

If you have glaucoma, pressure checks at the doctor’s office are routine. High levels can strain your optic nerve and lead to blindness. Your doctor could one day implant an electronic sensor in your eye to help track pressure changes without an office visit. The wireless gadget, now under development at the University of Washington, will send data to a handheld device or a smartphone; it could also go straight to your doctor.

Smartphones Bring the Doctor’s Office to You

Products currently on the market are improving access to eye care worldwide. Peek and D-eye each pair a small lens attachment with an app that turns a smartphone into a portable exam tool. They let doctors check eyes in places that bulky equipment just can't go. The iExaminer System marries an iPhone with the device your primary care doctor uses to look into your eyes. He can take detailed pictures and share them with an expert if he sees a problem. 

Tiny Needles Could Replace Eyedrops

What if you could get a shot that would deliver medicine right to the specific spot in your eye that needs it -- and you wouldn't even feel it? Researchers at Georgia Tech have come up with needle points that are so fine, they can inject drugs without pain. They’ll use them for glaucoma and an overgrowth of blood vessels in the cornea -- both can harm your vision if not treated. To date, the needles have only been tested in animals.

Apps for the Blind

A crop of new apps can help people with vision problems. Take the apps TapTapSee and VizWiz: Point the camera on your phone at an object, and the app will tell you what it is. If the app doesn't know, it can send details out to a network to see if someone else can help. The LookTel Money Reader can tell you the value of paper money. Download the KNFB Reader app, take a picture of a printed document, and your phone will read it aloud.

Reviewed by Alan Kozarsky, MD on January 08, 2015

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There's an app for that: Smartphones can help prevent blindness.

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Gadgets that snap onto a doctor's phone are bringing eye exams to parts of the world where heavy equipment can’t go.

This is probably one of the most exciting times in ophthalmology in terms of developing technology that can help people who were once blind be able to see again." -Anne Sumers, MD, American Academy of Ophthalmology