Nobel Laureates, Lasers, and A Path to Curing Blindness in Armenia

October 4, 2018 By Allison Taylor

The Nobel Prize is a celebration of revolutionary achievements and discoveries in science, literature, and peace, and recognizes the global impact that these achievements have had. This week, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists for their groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics.

Without context, the word “laser” may have you thinking of science fiction – futuristic weapons, tractor beams, or light sabers – but it’s no secret that lasers have current, real-world applications.

Donna Strickland – who joins the ranks of just two other female Nobel Laureates in physics – and her colleague Gérard Mourou were awarded the prize for developing a technique to create extremely brief, high-intensity laser pulses. It might sound obscure, but the method – known as “chirped pulse amplification” (CPA) – is used every day in the medical world. In fact, it may have even been used on you.

CPA technology has become the premium standard in corrective eye surgery procedures, like LASIK. It’s also used to treat conditions like cataracts and diabetic retinopathy.

Since the 1960s, lasers have been used to deliver extremely precise treatments to patients suffering from a range of eye problems – often preventing (or even curing) total blindness. According to the World Health Organization 80% of visual impairment is curable with treatment. But this life-changing technology is still largely available in more affluent, developed countries while 90% of those in need of treatment reside in the developing world.

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Albert Papyan is nearly 80 years old, living in Ijevan – a small town nestled along the Aghstev river in Armenia. Spry for his age, with a contagious smile and big personality, Albert lives in retirement on a pension of only $120 a month. After suffering the loss of his son to the war in Azerbaijan, Albert gradually began losing his vision to the advanced stages of cataracts.

For years, Armenia has struggled to provide accessible and affordable health care to its citizens, particularly in poor and rural areas. Nearly one-third of Armenia’s adult population aged 50 and older are at risk of blindness due to untreated eye diseases, and that number is projected to double in the next 30 years.

In order to receive treatment, Albert would need to travel to Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan, which is about 80 miles from Ijevan. On his small pension, he would barely be able to afford the journey, let alone the expense of treatment.

Albert eventually went completely blind.

“There is no pain greater than going blind,” he said. “I was in complete darkness.”

In 2015, thanks to the groundwork set by a USAID partnership, another option became available for Albert. The Armenian EyeCare Project (AECP) opened its first of five Regional Eye Clinics right in Ijevan. Abert received cataract surgery at no cost – and today, his vision is completely restored.

The Project has performed almost 250,000 eye examinations, provided laser surgery to 10,000 patients, and trained nearly 2,000 ophthalmologists across the country of Armenia.

From science fiction, to reality, to global impact – the achievements of our Nobel Laureates celebrated this week just might be the building blocks for innovations that will change the world in ways we have yet to imagine.

Albert’s story originally appeared here: