Permanent eye color change: New procedure may not be worth the risk

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Instead of buying box after box of color contacts, people are choosing to have irises permanently implanted in the color of their choice. © Sergey Peterman - Fotolia.com

Instead of buying box after box of color contacts, people are choosing to have irises permanently implanted in the color of their choice. © Sergey Peterman - Fotolia.com

Want to change those brown eyes blue? Well, a new procedure promises to change eye color — forever — using iris implants made in various colors.

Iris implants are not yet approved in the United States for cosmetic use, but it hasn’t stopped Americans from traveling outside of the country to have the procedure done.

Several YouTube videos show before and after images of people who say they have had BrightOcular implants placed in their eyes.

In one video, a young African-American man desires grey eyes because he wants “a brand new me.” After surgery, he says the procedure caused him no pain.

“It was 15 minutes per eye,” he says. “It was great.”

In another video, a young woman says that she felt pain the evening after the surgery, “but it was really okay,” and that now, “I feel like someone new.”

The downside? They’re possibly risking their vision to have the look that they want.

Not all roses

Dr. James Tsai, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and glaucoma specialist at Yale University, says there’s a lot of marketing at play.

“These companies have paid some of these patients who have gone through this to provide testimonials to the benefits,” he says.

“They start out by saying it’s just like a cataract surgery… that it usually goes very well, and it’s usually a safe procedure,” he says. “But they don’t go into detail about all of the complications. The side effects and dangers are minimized.”

BrightOcular denies that they have ever paid for testimonials or paid models to appear in them.

Multiple studies have highlighted the risks of iris implant procedures, including blindness, glaucoma, scarring of the cornea, sensitivity to light or the development of cataracts.

But, according to Tsai, these risks aren’t always shared with the patient.

Once complications occur and the implant has to be removed surgically, that can pose its own set of problems.

“In one of my patients, the surgeon tried to remove it and when he pulled away the implant, it ripped off her natural iris and she no longer had a natural-looking pupil,” Tsai recalls.

What’s behind those eyes?

The iris, a ring of muscle fibers surrounding the pupil, is what determines eye color. During the procedure, eye surgeons place artificial irises underneath the top layer of the eye (cornea), covering the patient’s natural iris. The result is that only the artificial iris is showing in the selected color.

Iris implants were first made for people whose irises did not develop normally at birth, or people who had damage to their eyes, such as burn victims. This particular type of implantation has been approved in the United States for some time. However, cosmetic iris implants are a new endeavor.

Dr. Shibu Varkey, an eye surgeon in India referred to theGrio by BrightOcular, first started using their implants on patients with iris abnormalities.

“These patients, who earlier, were unable to face even daylight, now were able to do so,” he says. “The overall quality of these patients’ lives improved.”

Varkey found BrightOcular while searching online for a patient of his — a young boy whose iris was badly damaged in an accident.

“The stringent selection criteria of candidates for the procedure… was technically and scientifically sound, so I decided that this was a promising product for this situation.”

The procedure has only been done in India for a little over a year. Varkey has personally implanted irises in 24 eyes in patients from several countries. Eighteen were for cosmetic purposes.

“This implant can also be used for those persons who would want to permanently change the color of their eyes of cosmetic reasons, like persons involved in show business, who are intolerant to cosmetic contact lenses due to medical reasons or due to difficulty in its use and maintenance,” he explains.

However, Varkey cautions that before embarking on this procedure, patients should have a thorough eye exam, including measurement of eye pressure and careful study of the retina. He is part of a team of researchers who are now gathering data to ensure the implant’s safety and to gain FDA approval in the United States.