Sometimes, science is about doing patient, deliberate research over many years. And, sometimes, science is about squirting dangerous research chemicals into your eyes to let you see in the dark.
In the “Riddick” science-fiction films, the most memorable piece of future technology is the protagonist’s surgically modified eyes (a “shine-job”). A reflective layer at the back of the eye allows him to see in the dark (creating the iconic eye-shine effect from the film).
SFM has achieved a similar effect by using a protein called Ce6, which is used to sensitize cells to light. Ce6 has previously been used as a treatment for night blindness and also as an experimental chemotherapy treatment. In their research, SFM used a mixture of Ce6, insulin, and DMSO, and dripped it into the eyes of their volunteers. The mixture diffused into the retina and dramatically improved the low-light vision of the human guinea pigs for several hours.
Within hours, the experimental subjects were able to pick out targets against a tree-line at fifty meters on a dark night with 100% accuracy. The control group, without the treatment, could pick out only about one third. This could potentially be useful in a number of real-world scenarios, from special forces to search-and-rescue.
There are however, some reasons for caution.
Risks and Dangers
Let’s rewind back to the chemical cocktail that the researchers used. The insulin is probably fine, but what about the Ce6 and the DMSO? DMSO is a mutagen and was banned from medical applications for a period in the 1960’s due to its risk of causing permanent damage to the eyes.
Beyond that, Ce6 itself isn’t exactly sunshine and roses either. It’s used in chemotherapy because it serves to amplify the effects of light on tissue — so much so that it kills cells that are directly exposed to light. By dosing a cancer patient with Ce6, light can be used as a non-invasive way to burn up tumors. However, saturating your eye with it carries the risk that regular light exposure could destroy your retina.
The solution to this problem was light-blocking contact lenses (similar to the dark welding glasses worn by Riddick in the film).
However, these can only be used for planned light exposure. If the researchers had encountered a surprise source of light (like, an unplanned conversation with flashlight-wielding police), they could have gone blind.
This kind of biohacking is very cool, but also very dangerous. It seems irresponsible to use the therapy on both eyes: the experiments could have been designed for just a single eye, with both the subject and the control group wearing eye patches over the other. That way, even if the drugs wound up causing retinal damage or eye cancer, the test subject wouldn’t be rendered completely blind.
On the other hand, I have to admit that this research clearly has practical applications, and probably wouldn’t have happened in academia or industry. So long as mainstream medicine refuses to pursue this kind of transhuman research, there will still be significant value to be gained from crazy people way outside the mainstream using themselves as guinea pigs. So I salute these folks for their contribution, and hope to hell they start being more careful.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Their website lists another project which involves trying to see infrared by (among other things) eating a diet totally devoid of vitamin A. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see whether mainstream science conducts further experiments on human night vision based on their work.
Are you interested in this kind of transhuman research? Worried about the risks? Could you benefit from better night vision? Discuss in the comments!