Artificial Eyes
by Paul, Jenny and Emily Geelen

By: Carmelo Amalfi

If you can guess which eye is false, Michael Stavretis, will proudly show you the stud in his coral eyeball.

Michael, a 12-year-old Dalmain Primary School student from Kingsley, is among a handful of West Australians who have an eye socket fitted with a ball of coral from a site off Hawaii.

“It feels like a normal eye,” he said, removing the artificial eye cover fitted to the coral implant with a titanium peg.

Michael’s left eye began to degenerate 6½ years ago when the retina detached from the back of the eye. He woke one morning and the world was black in one eye. He had Wagner’s disease, or degenerative vitreo retinopathy.

He spent the next few years coping with infections and other complications which caused him excruciating pain, swollen veins and second looks. His sister, Elizabeth, 15, and brother, Christopher, 8, whose right retina tore two months ago before it was reattached by Lion’s Eye Institute surgeons, also inherited the retinal disease.

Michael’s eye had to be replaced in January by Princess Margaret Hospital ophthalmology head Geoff Lam.

“It was a shock for us,” his mother, Sharon, said. “We did not know at that stage that it came through my husband, John, nor that each of our children had a 50 per cent chance of going blind if they were short-sighted. John had a retina detachment four years ago but he was lucky because it was not as bad.”

Mrs Stavretis said her sons could not play contact sports. But Michael loved cricket, which he had to play with a soft ball.

Dr Lam said plastic implants previously were inserted into the empty socket to maintain its shape.

Coral implants were ideal replacements because of their structural and chemical similarities to human bone. Coral was porous and allowed muscles and blood vessels to thread through it to become a part of the body.

Stage two of the procedure involved drilling a titanium peg into the centre of the coral so the artificial eye could be clipped on to it, allowing natural movement. The implant and titanium peg together helped reduce excess movement, or drift, unsightly lid sag and infection, though the peg could become infected unless handled carefully.

The artificial eye cover, or shell, was made in WA. It was matched with Michael’s right eye. Even the veins were drawn on.

The Bio-eye implant, made by United States company Integrated Orbital Implants, is distributed in Australia by OPSM.

Nature lends a hand

Ocular implants replace the area in the orbit, or bone cavity, occupied by the eye. It is not visible itself but maintains the original shape of the eye socket. Artificial eyes, which have been made for thousands of years, usually are made of plastic or glass. The first ocular implants were developed about 100 years ago as small spheres of glass and gold. However, sea coral displays a remarkable similarity between the porous structure of coral and human bone.