The purpose of this project was to determine the role of corneal implants in the management of corneal thinning disease conditions. An evidence-based review was conducted to determine the safety, effectiveness and durability of corneal implants for the management of corneal thinning disorders. The evolving directions of research in this area were also reviewed.
Subject of the Evidence-Based Analysis
The primary treatment objectives for corneal implants are to normalize corneal surface topography, improve contact lens tolerability, and restore visual acuity in order to delay or defer the need for corneal transplant. Implant placement is a minimally invasive procedure that is purported to be safe and effective. The procedure is also claimed to be adjustable, reversible, and both eyes can be treated at the same time. Further, implants do not limit the performance of subsequent surgical approaches or interfere with corneal transplant. The evidence for these claims is the focus of this review.
The specific research questions for the evidence review were as follows:
Corneal Surface Topographic Effects:
Effects on corneal surface remodelling
Impact of these changes on subsequent interventions, particularly corneal transplantation (penetrating keratoplasty [PKP])
Visual Quality (Symptoms): such as contrast vision or decreased visual symptoms (halos, fluctuating vision)
Contact lens tolerance
Functional visual rehabilitation and quality of life
Impact on corneal thinning process
Effect on delaying or deferring the need for corneal transplantation
Clinical Need: Target Population and Condition
Corneal ectasia (thinning) comprises a range of disorders involving either primary disease conditions such as keratoconus and pellucid marginal corneal degeneration or secondary iatrogenic conditions such as corneal thinning occurring after LASIK refractive surgery. The condition occurs when the normally round dome-shaped cornea progressively thins causing a cone-like bulge or forward protrusion in response to the normal pressure of the eye. Thinning occurs primarily in the stoma layers and is believed to be a breakdown in the collagen network. This bulging can lead to an irregular shape or astigmatism of the cornea and, because the anterior part of the cornea is largely responsible for the focusing of light on the retina, results in loss of visual acuity. This can make even simple daily tasks, such as driving, watching television or reading, difficult to perform.
Keratoconus (KC) is the most common form of corneal thinning disorder and is a noninflammatory chronic disease process. Although the specific causes of the biomechanical alterations that occur in KC are unknown, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that genetic factors may play an important role. KC is a rare condition (<0.05% of the population) and is unique among chronic eye diseases as it has an early age of onset (median age of 25 years). Disease management for this condition follows a step-wise approach depending on disease severity. Contact lenses are the primary treatment of choice when there is irregular astigmatism associated with the disease. When patients can no longer tolerate contact lenses or when lenses no longer provide adequate vision, patients are referred for corneal transplant.
Keratoconus is one of the leading indications for corneal transplants and has been so for the last three decades. Yet, despite high graft survival rates of up to 20 years, there are reasons to defer receiving transplants for as long as possible. Patients with keratoconus are generally young and life-long term graft survival would be an important consideration. The surgery itself involves lengthy time off work and there are potential complications from long term steroid use following surgery, as well as the risk of developing secondary cataracts, glaucoma etc. After transplant, recurrent KC is possible with need for subsequent intervention. Residual refractive errors and astigmatism can remain challenging after transplantation and high refractive surgery rates and re-graft rates in KC patients have been reported. Visual rehabilitation or recovery of visual acuity after transplant may be slow and/or unsatisfactory to patients.
Description of Technology/Therapy
INTACS® (Addition Technology Inc. Sunnyvale, CA, formerly KeraVision, Inc.) are the only currently licensed corneal implants in Canada. The implants are micro-thin poly methyl methacrylate crescent shaped ring segments with a circumference arc length of 150 degrees, an external diameter of 8.10 mm, an inner diameter of 6.77 mm, and a range of different thicknesses. Implants act as passive spacers and, when placed in the cornea, cause local separation of the corneal lamellae resulting in a shortening of the arc length of the anterior corneal curvature and flattening the central cornea. Increasing segment thickness results in greater lamellar separation with increased flattening of the cornea correcting for myopia by decreasing the optical power of the eye. Corneal implants also improve corneal astigmatism but the mechanism of action for this is less well understood.
Treatment with corneal implants is considered for patients who are contact lens intolerant, having adequate corneal thickness particularly around the area of the implant incision site and without central corneal scarring. Those with central corneal scarring would not benefit from implants and those without an adequate corneal thickness, particularly in the region that the implants are being inserted, would be at increased risk for corneal perforation. Patients desiring to have visual rehabilitation that does not include glasses or contact lenses would not be candidates for corneal ring implants.
Placement of the implants is an outpatient procedure with topical anesthesia generally performed by either corneal specialists or refractive surgeons. It involves creating tunnels in the corneal stroma to secure the implants either by a diamond knife or laser calibrated to an approximate depth of 70% of the cornea. Variable approaches have been employed by surgeons in selecting ring segment size, number and position. Generally, two segments of equal thickness are placed superiorly and inferiorly to manage symmetrical patterns of corneal thinning whereas one segment may be placed to manage asymmetric thinning patterns.
Following implantation, the major safety concerns are for potential adverse events including corneal perforation, infection, corneal infiltrates, corneal neovascularization, ring migration and extrusion and corneal thinning. Technical results can be unsatisfactory for several reasons. Treatment may result in an over or under-correction of refraction and may induce astigmatism or asymmetry of the cornea.
Progression of the corneal cone with corneal opacities is also invariably an indication for progression to corneal transplant. Other reasons for treatment failure or patient dissatisfaction include foreign body sensation, unsatisfactory visual quality with symptoms such as double vision, fluctuating vision, poor night vision or visual side effects related to ring edge or induced or unresolved astigmatism.
Evidence-Based Analysis Methods
The literature search strategy employed keywords and subject headings to capture the concepts of 1) intrastromal corneal rings and 2) corneal diseases, with a focus on keratoconus, astigmatism, and corneal ectasia. The initial search was run on April 17, 2008, and a final search was run on March 6, 2009 in the following databases: Ovid MEDLINE (1996 to February Week 4 2009), OVID MEDLINE In-Process and Other Non-Indexed Citations, EMBASE (1980 to 2009 Week 10), OVID Cochrane Library, and the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination/International Agency for Health Technology Assessment. Parallel search strategies were developed for the remaining databases. Search results were limited to human and English-language published between January 2000 and April 17, 2008. The resulting citations were downloaded into Reference Manager, v.11 (ISI Researchsoft, Thomson Scientific, U.S.A), and duplicates were removed. The Web sites of several other health technology agencies were also reviewed including the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH), ECRI, and the United Kingdom National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE). The bibliographies of relevant articles were scanned.
English language reports and human studies
Any corneal thinning disorder
Reports with corneal implants used alone or in conjunction with other interventions
Original reports with defined study methodology
Reports including standardized measurements on outcome events such as technical success, safety, effectiveness, durability, vision quality of life or patient satisfaction
Case reports or case series for complications and adverse events
Non-systematic reviews, letters, comments and editorials
Reports not involving outcome events such as safety, effectiveness, durability, vision quality or patient satisfaction following an intervention with corneal implants
Reports not involving corneal thinning disorders and an intervention with corneal implants
Summary of Findings
In the MAS evidence review on intrastromal corneal ring implants, 66 reports were identified on the use of implants for management of corneal thinning disorders. Reports varied according to their primary clinical indication, type of corneal implant, and whether or not secondary procedures were used in conjunction with the implants. Implants were reported to manage post LASIK thinning and/or uncorrected refractive error and were also reported as an adjunctive intervention both during and after corneal transplant to manage recurrent thinning and/or uncorrected refractive error.
Ten pre-post cohort longitudinal follow-up studies were identified examining the safety and effectiveness of INTAC corneal implants in patients with keratoconus. Five additional cohort studies were identified using the Ferrara implant for keratoconus management but because this corneal implant is not licensed in Canada these studies were not reviewed.
The cohorts implanted with INTACS involved 608 keratoconus patients (754 eyes) followed for 1, 2 or 3 years. Three of the reports involved ≥ 2 years of follow-up with the longest having 5-year follow-up data for a small number of patients. Four of the INTAC cohort studies involved 50 or more patients; the largest involved 255 patients. Inclusion criteria for the studies were consistent and included patients who were contact lens intolerant, had adequate corneal thickness, particularly around the area of the implant incision site, and without central corneal scarring. Disease severity, thinning pattern, and corneal cone protrusions all varied and generally required different treatment approaches involving defined segment sizes and locations.
A wide range of outcome measures were reported in the cohort studies. High levels of technical success or ability to place INTAC segments were reported. Technically related complications were often delayed and generally reported as segment migration attributable to early experience. Overall, complications were infrequently reported and largely involved minor reversible events without clinical sequelae.
The outcomes reported across studies involved statistically significant and clinically relevant improvements in corneal topography, refraction and visual acuity, for both uncorrected and best-corrected visual acuity. Patients’ vision was usually restored to within normal functioning levels and for those not achieving satisfactory correction, insertion of intraocular lenses was reported in case studies to result in additional gains in visual acuity. Vision loss (infrequently reported) was usually reversed by implant exchange or removal. The primary effects of INTACS on corneal surface remodelling were consistent with secondary improvements in refractive error and visual acuity. The improvements in visual acuity and refractive error noted at 6 months were maintained at 1 and 2-year follow-up
Improvements in visual acuity and refractive error following insertion of INTACS, however, were not noted for all patients. Although improvements were not found to vary across age groups there were differences across stages of disease. Several reports suggested that improvements in visual acuity and refractive outcomes may not be as large or predictable in more advanced stages of KC. Some studies have suggested that the effects of INTACs were much greater in flattening the corneal surface than in correcting astigmatism. However, these studies involved small numbers of high risk patients in advanced stages of KC and conclusions made from this group are limited.
INTACS were used for other indications other than primary KC. The results of implant insertion on corneal topography, refraction, and visual acuity in post-LASIK thinning cases were similar to those reported for KC. The evidence for this indication, however, only involved case reports and small case series. INTACS were also successfully used to treat recurrent KC after corneal transplant but this was based on only a single case report. Corneal implants were compared to corneal transplantation but these studies were not randomized and based on small numbers of selected patients.
The foremost limitation of the evidence base is the basic study design in the reports that involved longitudinal follow-up only for the treated group; there were no randomized trials. Follow-up in the trials (although at prescribed intervals) often had incomplete accounts of losses at follow-up and estimates of change were often not reported or based on group differences. Second, although standardized outcome measures were reported, contact lens tolerance (a key treatment objective) was infrequently specified. A third general limitation was the lack of reporting of patients’ satisfaction with their vision quality or functional vision. Outcome measures for vision quality and impact on patient quality of life were available but rarely reported and have been noted to be a limitation in ophthalmological literature in general. Fourth, the longitudinal cohort studies have not followed patients long enough to evaluate the impact of implants on the underlying disease process (follow-up beyond 3 years is limited). Additionally, only a few of these studies directly examined corneal thinning in follow-up. The overall quality of evidence determined using the GRADE hierarchy of evidence was moderate.
There is some evidence in these studies to support the claim that corneal implants do not interfere with, or increase the difficultly of, subsequent corneal transplant, at least for those performed shortly after INTAC placement. Although it’s uncertain for how long implants can delay the need for a corneal transplant, given that patients with KC are often young (in their twenties and thirties), delaying transplant for any number of years may still be a valuable consideration.
The clinical indications for corneal implants have evolved from management of myopia in normal eyes to the management of corneal thinning disorders such as KC and thinning occurring after refractive surgery. Despite the limited evidence base for corneal implants, which consists solely of longitudinal follow-up studies, they appear to be a valuable clinical tool for improving vision in patients with corneal thinning. For patients unable to achieve functional vision, corneal implants achieved statistically significant and clinically relevant improvements in corneal topography, refraction, and visual acuity, providing a useful alternative to corneal transplant. Implants may also have a rescue function, treating corneal thinning occurring after refractive surgery in normal eyes, or managing refractive errors following corneal transplant. The treatment offers several advantages in that it’s an outpatient based procedure, is associated with minimal risk, and has high technical success rates. Both eyes can be treated at once and the treatment is adjustable and reversible. The implants can be removed or exchanged to improve vision without limiting subsequent interventions, particularly corneal transplant.
Better reporting on vision quality, functional vision and patient satisfaction, however, would improve evaluation of the impact of these devices. Information on the durability of the implants’ treatment effects and their affects on underlying disease processes is limited. This information is becoming more important as alternative treatment strategies, such as collagen cross-linking aimed at strengthening the underlying corneal tissue, are emerging and which might prove to be more effective or increase the effectiveness of the implants, particularly in advances stages of corneal thinning.
Ontario Health System Considerations
At present there are approximately 70 ophthalmologists in Canada who’ve had training with corneal implants; 30 of these practice in Ontario. Industry currently sponsors the training, proctoring and support for the procedure. The cost of the implant device ranges from $950 to $1200 (CAD) and costs for instrumentation range from $20,000 to $30,000 (CAD) (a one time capital expenditure). There is no physician services fee code for corneal implants in Ontario but assuming that they are no higher than those for a corneal transplant, the estimated surgical costs would be $914.32(CAD) An estimated average cost per patient, based on device costs and surgical fees, for treatment is $1,964 (CAD) (range $1,814 to $2,114) per eye. There have also been no out of province treatment requests. In Ontario the treatment is currently being offered in private clinics and an increasing number of ophthalmologists are being certified in the technique by the manufacturer.
KC is a rare disease and not all of these patients would be eligible candidates for treatment with corneal implants. Based on published population rates of KC occurrence, it can be expected that there is a prevalent population of approximately 6,545 patients and an incident population of 240 newly diagnosed cases per year. Given this small number of potential cases, the use of corneal implants would not be expected to have much impact on the Ontario healthcare system. The potential impact on the provincial budget for managing the incident population, assuming the most conservative scenario (i.e., all are eligible and all receive bilateral implants) ranges from $923 thousand to $1.1 million (CAD). This estimate would vary based on a variety of criteria including eligibility, unilateral or bilateral interventions, re-interventions, capacity and uptake
Keratoconus, corneal implants, corneal topography, corneal transplant, visual acuity, refractive error