July 16, 2009

Blind Animals Receive The Gift Of Sight

An east-German firm has found a solution for a wide variety of animals losing their sight from cataracts by implanting custom-made "contact lenses."

It is an extremely delicate procedure that necessitates special training for veterinarians.

S & V Technologies, a very small company founded by Bavarian chemist and entrepreneur Christine Kreiner, has now become a global leader in a highly specialized field.

When the animal's vision has become completely impaired by the clouding of cataracts, the acrylic intraocular lenses are implanted into its eyes. The lenses are even fitted to each particular species from cat-eye-sized to fist-width for rhinos.

"Cataracts generally means blindness for animals, unlike for humans"¦ and because animals have short life spans, it means losing quality of life in a greater share of that life," said the head of the company's veterinary division, Ingeborg Fromberg.

For the past year, since the firm's inception in 2008, they have received calls for help from the San Diego Zoo (a sea lion had a difficult time performing his tricks because of severely blurry vision), an Australia nature park (a blind kangaroo) and a Romanian zoo (a visually impaired lioness).

Dozens of house pets, racehorses, circus animals, guide dogs, as well as wild animals on nature reserves, have had the gift of sight returned to them by the German lenses.

Horses suffering from the excruciatingly painful and life-threatening sickness known as "head shaker syndrome" can also be helped by special lenses designed to absorb UV rays.

These operations and subsequent check-ups can rack up thousands of dollars in bills, but it is often considered worth it for animals that have gone blind and even their owners who want them to have a good quality of life.

"When something is unsettling for an animal, when they don't have a good sense of their surroundings, they can begin to get aggressive or unpredictable or withdrawn," Fromberg said.

One also has to take into consideration all the money that was invested in the training of the animal that would be wasted if they do not have their sight returned to them.

When an animal has impaired vision, it also affects their sex drive "“ halting reproduction.

For example, the World Wildlife Fund has invested in the lens transplants for their brown bears in a preserve in China.

However, it is not all about business and money for animals to have sight and enjoy life.

"Of course that is only one side of it -- some are pets and seen as members of the family and worth any expense," Fromberg said.

According to Fromberg, the most trying aspect of treating large animals like elephants and rhinos is the anesthesia.

"If larger animals lie for too long on one side during an operation then it puts too much pressure on the heart. That makes things a bit harder," she said.

"With a giraffe, for example, its head may never be lower than its heart. Every animal has its peculiarities that you have to contend with."

64-year-old CEO Kreiner from Munich decided to have her unusual firm located in Hennigsdorf, which is a low-key riverside town that in the last 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall has become quite a high-tech area. 

Being in Hennigsdorf on the northern outlying area of the capital was also a smart business move because the European Union and the German government both contributed one-third of the startup costs.

In her years in business, Kreimer has founded five different firms. She said she was attracted by Germany's ex-communist east and the strong pioneering spirit of the 1990 national unification.

"I thought at the time that it would be better to go to a poorer part of Germany rather than stay in Bavaria," which is a prosperous southern state, she said.

"The thinking was that it would be less bureaucratic in an eastern state, and that the subsidies would be better than in the west. It was the right decision."

Over the years, her various enterprises blossomed and evolved, building up to the founding of S & V Technologies in January 2008. The company now even has a US subsidiary in Salt Lake City.

A turnover of nearly 3.5 million dollars was posted by S & V just last year and based on the sale of lenses and a successful division of anti-wrinkle products for people, Kreiner expects it to grow by one-third this year.

Kreiner currently employs 32 people and intends to bring another five on board this year.

"There are no global players active in this area that are able to crush medium-sized firms with a major marketing operation," Kreiner said, while noting that the few competitors that she does have in Canada, France and the United States are all smaller than the tiny S & V firm.

The primary growth inhibitor to her business is the lack of vets that are trained to perform the implantation procedure. For this reason she now organizes training weekends for animal doctors from across the world.

She has had people travel from as far as Australia, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan and the United States to learn the procedure in the company laboratory on eyes harvested from animal cadavers.