The accuracy of the excimer laser. Scientists etch ‘IBM’ on a single human hair.
If you’ve been doing some research into having laser eye surgery you will be in no doubt how far science and technology has come in the last ten or fifteen years. Laser eye surgery is now quick, virtually painless and the results are now so good that 100% of our short sight patients achieve 20/20 vision or better after treatment.
But how did such a technology evolve? Laser eye surgery sometimes seems too good to be true but in fact it’s origins are firmly based on real science and proven technology. The idea of using some sort of surgery to correct vision dates back nearly a hundred years but it was in fact in the laboratories at IBM that a real breakthrough in refractive surgery occurred.
Bizarrely it was some turkey left over from a Thanksgiving Day dinner on November 26th 1981 that led to the modern medical breakthrough that has enabled millions of people to benefit from laser eye surgery.
Three researchers at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Centre in Yorktown, New York (Samuel Blum, Rangaswamy Srinivasan and James J. Wynne) had been experimenting with a new laser that had been introduced to their department. The laser they were using was an ‘excimer’ laser and used various gases which when electrically excited emitted energetic pulses of ultraviolet light. What was special about this laser was the ability of it to cleanly and very accurately etch patterns on solid materials.
The scientists made their breakthrough when Srinivasan brought his Thanksgiving turkey leftovers into the lab the day after Thanksgiving in 1981. He was able to etch a pattern on the turkey leftovers with no evidence at all of any disturbance to the surrounding tissue. This was a huge breakthrough – instead of ‘burning’, each laser pulse only disrupted the tissue on the surface, disintegrating it and leaving no damage to the underlying or adjacent tissue. The accuracy of the ‘cool’ laser was staggering and the scientists published an amazing picture of an etching they carried out on a single human hair – viewable only through an electron microscope.
After this landmark discovery it was only a matter of time before this amazing excimer laser was used to reshape the cornea and therefore correct human sight. In 1995 the US Food and Drug Administration approved the world’s first commercial excimer laser for refractive surgery – this was almost fourteen years after the IBM scientists had made their discovery.
Laser eye surgery is a genuine modern day medical breakthrough and only came to millions of people after fourteen years of research and testing. Over the past ten years advances in technology have meant that whilst safety has always been a feature of refractive surgery, results are now better than ever. Some patients even achieve 20/12 ‘Supervision’ which is something not achievable with glasses or contact lenses.