The lenses were developed by Jim Schwiegerling, a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Science in the UArizona James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences.
With support from Tech Launch Arizona, the university office that commercializes inventions created from UArizona research, patents were filed and granted to the Arizona Board of Regents. Tech Launch Arizona then partnered with Alcon, a global medical device company specializing in eye care products and one of the largest producers of intraocular lenses in the world, providing the company a license to use the technology in its products.
Alcon incorporated Schwiegerling's patented technology in its novel trifocal intraocular lens, PanOptix, launched in Europe in 2015. Eventually, PanOptix was approved for use in countries around the world, but it wasn't until summer 2019 that the last two major countries – the United States and Japan – approved use of the new lenses.
About half a million people around the world have now received Alcon's PanOptix lenses, says the University of Arizona.
"On the technological side, here's how it works: There’s this technology called diffractive lenses that look a little like mini lighthouse lenses – instead of smooth curve, the lens has little steps. If you alternate steps of different heights, you can create this third focus to use for computer distance," Schwiegerling said. "Alcon brought this technology to PanOptix, which has been used to treat cataract patients around the world."
Besides offering better eyesight through a third focal distance, trifocal lenses can also let more light into the eye, which creates sharper, higher contrast images, solving one more common problem of bifocal lenses.
Schwiegerling developed cataracts several years ago, he said, but because PanOptix wasn't yet available in the U.S., he traveled to Germany to get them implanted for himself.
"So I'm a user and not just a maker," he said. "I am thrilled with being able to do my outdoor activities, work at the computer and read without being encumbered by glasses."