Nearly three million Americans have glaucoma, according to the CDC.  The disease is one of the most common causes of blindness. When glaucoma is detected, the disease progression can be slowed so that  the patient won’t lose any more vision. There are no early symptoms of glaucoma, however, and no current cure, so once you’ve got this progressive disease, you’ve got it for life. We’ve written about smartphone apps and biometric indicators such as gait that can detect glaucoma early on. The trick to slowing the disease is to remove fluid buildup within the eye to reduce internal pressure. Implanted drainage tubes are one common way to reduce eyeball pressure. The tubes have an inherent problem; after about five years, the tubes get clogged by the buildup of microorganisms.

Purdue University researchers announced a new glaucoma drainage tube that uses magnetically-induced microactuators to shake accumulated gunk from the tubes so that they’ll keep working. The work was published in Microsystems and Nanoengineering. According to Purdue assistant professor Hyowon Lee, drainage tubes in their study have integrated microactuators. When you introduce an external magnetic field, the microactuators start to vibrate and shake out the biological buildup. Purdue’s drainage tubes also have adjustable flow resistance, which varies the flow as the disease progresses.

The Purdue researchers are currently applying for a patent for the vibrating drainage tube and are also seeking licensing partners. Ideally, universal screening would allow treatment for all at the earliest glaucoma stages. Early detection won’t prevent the progressive disease, however, but could certainly delay or even prevent blindness. Purdue’s shaking drainage tubes are appealing in one sense because the technology attacks the problem mechanically, instead of relying on drugs.