Disposable contact lenses poised for the next 25 years of growth

Frequent replacement of contact lenses is something patients and practitioners alike take for granted today -- but 25 years ago, it was a rather radical concept.

Key Points

Fequent replacement of contact lenses is something patients and practitioners alike take for granted today-but 25 years ago, it was a rather radical concept. In the mid 1980s, in fact, contact lens wear was still relatively rare. Soft hydrogel lenses, first introduced in 1971 by Bausch + Lomb, had almost entirely displaced PMMA lenses. But there were still a number of challenges to convenient, comfortable wear.

Lenses were individually lathed, polished, and inspected by hand, making for wide variability in the final products. Practitioners instructed patients to use heat and enzymatic cleaners to extend the life span of the lenses, and multiple bottles of solution were required. Moreover, fitting them could be quite time-consuming.

"After each fitting we had to re-sterilize the trial lenses used, then order the right prescription for the patient," recalled Stephen Cohen, OD, who has been fitting contact lenses in Scottsdale, AZ, for more than 25 years. When the lenses arrived several weeks later, the base curve or prescription might be a little off, necessitating a second try and more weeks of waiting. Not surprisingly, soft contact lenses remained limited to highly motivated doctors and patients.

Investment in the future

The first Acuvue lenses were made from etafilcon A, a hydrogel material developed by Seymour Marco, OD, whose Frontier Contact Lens Company was acquired by Johnson & Johnson in 1981 and renamed Vistakon. It was eventually paired with a manufacturing process called Stabilized Soft Molding that Vistakon had acquired from Michael Bay, MD, a Danish ophthalmologist and engineer.

Vistakon invested heavily in refining both the material and the manufacturing process, and in 1987, the company launched Acuvue. The lens was originally indicated for 7-day extended wear, then became a daily lens. The company went from making 100,000 lenses a day to 1 million lenses a day, a level of production that was unfathomable at the time.

With that scale came greater consistency in the manufacturing process, too. Practitioners could be confident that each lens was manufactured to exact specifications. And the ability to immediately dispense trial lenses was a huge benefit.

Other manufacturers followed suit, launching their own disposable lens products. Dr. Cohen said that once practitioners began prescribing the new lenses, they quickly embraced the health, convenience, and vision benefits. His own "conversion" began with a simple question from a mother who wanted to know why he planned to start her teenage son in conventional lenses. In that moment, he said, "I realized that the more 'conservative' position was not just to stick with what I had been prescribing, but to offer that young patient the healthier option of replacing his lenses more frequently." In short order, the safety and convenience of planned-replacement lenses helped usher in an era of much broader public acceptance of contact lens wear.