How It Works

Zapping cataracts with lasers

Patricia Bath 1942-2019

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Sight is one of our most treasured senses, but as we grow older our ability to see can become compromise­d for a multitude of reasons. One common age-related optical ailment is the developmen­t of cataracts. At the forefront of each of our eyes, a glass-like lens allows the image of the outside world to be projected into our brains. As we age the proteins that make up that lens can slowly break down and turn a once crystal-clear lens cloudy. In turn the projected image can no longer be seen in such clarity, but instead appears foggy, or in extreme cases is shrouded in darkness. Some form of treatment for the condition has been around since the 5th century BCE. However, over the centuries the methods of removing, replacing and obliterati­ng the cloudy build-up have evolved. One particular medical breakthrou­gh occurred in 1986 after Patricia Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe. Up until then it was common practice to insert a needle into the eye to reach the lens, and then an ultrasound probe was used to break apart the cloudy cataract. However, Bath developed a novel way to remove the cataract using lasers to replace the ultrasound, with the ability to conduct the surgery with greater accuracy and better results. Bath had perfectly demonstrat­ed what was thought to have been impossible in her work, which shocked the scientific community. Two years after the invention of the Laserphaco Probe, Bath gained a patent for her creation, not only cementing herself as a pioneer among ophthalmol­ogists, but also becoming the first African-american female doctor to receive a medical patent.

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