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The Salt Lake Tribune

University of Utah researchers have created a laser beam they would love to shoot into your eye. It is a new kind of test they predict could help detect the leading cause of blindness for people over 65, a disease called age-related macular degeneration. It afflicts more than 13 million older Americans. Physicist Werner Gellermann and ophthalmology assistant professor Paul. S. Bernstein spent the last four years developing a laser system at the university's Moran Eye Center that uses a method called resonance Raman spectroscopy. The test can measure the amount of yellow pigment in the back of the eye that protects people from harmful blue rays, which are part of normal light. "So far, there has been no machine to measure that," said Gellermann, director of the Center for Biomedical Optics at the University of Utah. "That was the challenge." In the back of the eye are two "macular carotenoid pigments" called lutein and zeaxanthin (pronounced "ziazanthin"), spots that block out the blue spectrum of light from entering the retina "like internal sunglasses," Gellerman said. Lutein and zeaxanthin are commonly found in green, leafy vegetables including spinach, broccoli and collard greens and yellow and orange-colored fruit and vegetables like peaches, nectarines and corn. But when a person's pigment levels drop, the result is blurred vision in the center of the eye, while their peripheral vision may remain strong. "You have difficulty reading, driving, and in some cases, have problems seeing faces," said Bernstein, who also is an eye surgeon at the Moran Eye Center. "It's a blurred image no matter how they look at it." Gellerman and Bernstein developed the low-powered argon laser system -- which was built by Utah company National Laser -- to actually shoot a half-second burst of the blue light into the eye. When the laser light shines on the pigments, they glow green, and that green light is reflected back and measured on a spectrometer. The more green light that is detected, the more pigment the person has. A doctor who discovers deficiencies in macular pigment could put the patients on a diet of more vegetables and fruits or give them supplements. "Macular degeneration is a blinding, incurable disease. It's important for people to identify it early to lower the risks," Bernstein said. "It's equivalent to other early detection for glaucoma or heart disease. It's the same reason we get tested for cholesterol early." The team, which received the patent for the device about a year ago, has been conducting two phases of studies using the laser since October. A year-long third phase will launch this summer, and they already have created a startup company, Spectrotech, Inc., to market the device. The development of the laser was financed in part through a grant from the state's Centers of Excellence Program, National Institutes of Health and the National Eye Institute. Caption: Paul Bernstein, is one of the inventors of a new laser technique that detects levels of two pigments in the eye that are necessary to avoid macular degeneration. Steve Wintsch, is a U. of U. physics student. The research is under way at the Moran Eye Center.

Al Hartmann, The Salt Lake Tribune
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