MINOT — North Dakota native and inventor Bill Isaacson developed the world’s first bifocal or multifocal intraocular lens (IOL) in 1987. The high-tech lens has been implanted during cataract surgeries throughout the world, restoring visual clarity to millions. Now, three decades later he will finally get to experience his own invention.
The Stanley, ND, resident will undergo cataract lens implant surgery April 21 at Trinity Health in Minot. Trinity Ophthalmologist Darrell Williams, MD, will perform the procedure, which he says is historic, not just because of his celebrity patient. Isaacson will also be the first patient in North Dakota to receive an updated trifocal lens with a new material and manufacturing process.
“It is remarkable that Bill Isaacson will benefit from his own invention,” Dr. Williams states. “He has helped patients worldwide to achieve their dreams with better vison. His multifocal design is the major innovation in IOL optics technology since the invention of the original monofocal lens in the 1940s.”
Isaacson and Williams have worked together previously. Dr. Williams was an investigator for the 3M company to evaluate Isaacson’s original multifocal design. He used the device during cataract surgery for the inventor’s mother, Helen, in 1989.
“Of all the ventures I have pursued the one that has brought me the greatest satisfaction was being able to improve the quality of life for my mother during the last five years of her life,” Isaacson said. “She had cataracts that left her with very poor vision; her life was going downhill. That lens changed her life. She took up watercolor painting again. It gave her hope.”
Cataract is the clouding of the eye’s natural lens that often develops with age but can occur at any point in life. It is the major cause of blindness worldwide. Trinity Health ophthalmologists use the latest technology to remove the cloudy lens and replace it with one of several varieties of intraocular lenses. Each style of implant has its own characteristics and advantages.
States Isaacson, “There are now multifocal lenses approved by the FDA allowing for three trifocal ranges of focused vision. It is an evolution of the technology employed with my original invention using diffraction optics in order to see near and distance with less dependence on glasses after surgery.” Although Isaacson could have gone anywhere for his surgery, he says he chose Trinity Regional Eyecare for several reasons. “Number one, I am from Minot and I bought a home in Stanley in 1989,” he said. “Plus, introducing new technology is familiar territory to Dr. Williams, who has introduced numerous IOLs and advancements to the region.”
Isaacson describes himself as simply, “a boy from North Dakota trying to find his way in the world,” but his life would make a fascinating book. “I have had so many unique experiences traveling the world, working with ophthalmologists and making presentations at meetings in every European country – behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin and Czechoslovakia, and in Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore,” he said.
A Minot native, Isaacson graduated from Minot High in 1956 and enrolled at Minot State University. The Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik, so scientists and engineers were urgently needed. Isaacson attended MSU for pre-engineering but developed an interest in petroleum refinery. He completed both his masters and PhD in chemical engineering at Montana State University, Bozeman.
After graduation, his quest was to design products that would improve lives through vision technology. He found the opportunity to pursue that mission at 3M in St. Paul, MN, which he joined in 1963. It was a workplace culture that supported innovation. A scientist with a keen mind and a gift for invention, Isaacson served as a venture director in 3M’s life sciences sector and was regarded as “top intrapreneur.” The environment allowed him to design such innovations as extended wear contact lenses, multifocal contacts lenses, artificial corneas, surgical glue and the world’s first multifocal intraocular lens. Three of his eight patents are for the multifocal intraocular lens as well as bifocal and extended wear contact lenses.
“From 1949 to 1987 all IOLs were single focus lenses,” Isaacson explained. “They worked on the principle of refraction or bending the light. I used diffraction optics to split the light and recombine it, giving the lens a depth of field to see distance and near objects with the same lens. We created the diffraction by designing 28 circular zones offset by one millionth of an inch to be superimposed on the posterior lens of the conventional lens. It worked!”
The FDA authorized 2,000 lenses to be used in the United States with the initial investigation, and it became immensely popular. Isaacson tells entertaining antidotes about people who pulled strings to get the limited original implants for their own eye surgery, including none other than Frank Sinatra. Now, whenever he mentions his flagship invention, people often respond, “I have those in my eyes.” On April 21, the legendary inventor will join their ranks. “I finally get to take my own medicine,” he said.