Raina Pang
Nov 18, 2011

Laser surgery permanently turns brown eyes into blue

A new procedure currently undergoing testing in Mexico changes brown eyes to blue. For readers clamoring to get this procedure, it will not be available in the US for about three more years. Although Dr. Gregg Homer filed the patent for this procedure in 2001, it wasn’t until 2004 that testing on animals started. After initial tests on cadavers, the first human trials began in 2010.


While the invention of cosmetic contacts already allows a person to change their eyes to whatever color or pattern they want, this is the first procedure that permanently changes the color of the eyes.


As a society our physical appearance carries a lot of significance. A theory exists that our obsession with beauty relates back to our evolutionary desire to successfully pass on our genes. While defining beauty is somewhat subjective, some universal traits seem to underlie what is considered beautiful. Many of the traits that signify beauty also indicate health, such as face symmetry and reduced parasite load, and reproductive ability, such as waist to hip ratio in females.


Although many traits valued as “beautiful” signify good health and virility, others, such as eye color, may associate with higher risk for certain diseases. While many people desire blue eyes, light colored eyes in general associate with age related macular degeneration and an increased risk of uveal melanoma.


Brown eyes aren’t considered disease free, however, as they carry an increased risk of cataracts. Despite some possible evolutionary disadvantages, blue eyes tend to be more desired than brown. This might have to do with rarity of light colored eyes. Brown eyes are by far the most common eye color and the rarity of lighter colors may contribute to our value of them. On the other hand, maybe we just like to peer deeply into eyes, which is easier to do with light colored eyes. 


While blue versus brown eye inheritance is considered similar to a recessive mendelian inheritance pattern, eye color inheritance is complex. Eye color is a polygenic trait that depends on two factors: pigmentation or the iris and the scattering of light in the stroma of the iris. Pigmentation of the iris depends on the amount of melanin (yes, the same thing that determines skin color) in the iris. How light scatters in the eye also determines eye color. This scattering of light makes eye color, specifically light colored eyes, situationaly defined.


A high concentration of melanin causes short and long wavelengths to be absorbed, which results in brown eyes. The removal of melanin pigment allows only long wavelengths to be absorbed and short wavelengths to undergo elastic scattering of light, which results in blue eyes. A process currently being tested in Mexico, where regulations are more lax then the US, uses a laser to do just that.


To start, a computerized scan of the iris is taken. Over the next 20 seconds a laser zaps each part of the iris and then repeats the procedure several times. The laser uses two frequencies only absorbed by the dark pigment, allowing the rest of the eye to remain undamaged, at least according to claims by the individuals performing this procedure. The heat changes the structure of the pigments, resulting in the body releasing proteins that remove the damaged cells. Once the body has removed the damaged cells, ‘ta da’ the beautiful blue eyes hiding behind that murky brown permanently emerge.  


A survey conducted by stroma medical, the company behind this procedure, 17 percent of Americans would obtain this procedure IF it were proven to be safe. So is it safe? According to Dr. Homer the procedure should be safe because only the surface pigment is removed. Although he believes the procedure to be safe, he is conducting extensive, apparently more extensive then necessary, safety testing.


Ophthalmologists run 15 safety examination procedures before surgery, after surgery, the day after surgery, the week after surgery, a month and three months after surgery. Currently, no reports of injuries exist. There are two major issues with understanding the safety of this procedure: who’s assessing the safety and the newness of the procedure.


Not to call the integrity of Dr. Homer into question, but a conflict of interest clearly exists. Secondly, the newness of the procedure makes it impossible to assess the long-term effects of the procedure, as no one has had a chance to develop any long-term problems.


Once upon a time our physical appearance depended on the unique interaction of our genetics with environmental factors. These days, however, numerous measures exist to drastically change ones physical appearance. From small to large measures it is possible to completely alter one’s physical appearance. Thanks to a new procedure, permanently changing one’s eye color from brown to blue is now possible, in Mexico anyways. 


While using a laser to permanently change the color of the eye seems somewhat ridiculous, is it any more extreme than other measures people go to in the name of beauty? While safety seems to be a major underlying concern of individuals, a market for this procedure clearly exists. Even if safe, I think I’ll keep my brown eyes. In any case if enough people go through with it maybe brown eyes will become the new blue!