May 8, 2009 / 3:39 PM / 10 years ago

J&J contact lens aims for push-back-the-menu crowd

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Middle-aged Americans who have ditched their contact lenses because they can no longer read menus, or anything at close range, may now have a better alternative to grandfatherly reading glasses.

Johnson & Johnson is counting on its recently introduced product, Acuvue Oasys for Presbyopia, to bring back into the fold multitudes of people from their late 30’s to early 50’s whose blurry near-vision has been poorly served by contact lenses.

Moreover, the company hopes the new product will allow it to hold onto patients of that age group who have not already switched to eyeglasses — giving J&J a chance to widen its lead in the $5.3 billion overall market for soft contact lenses.

“Our goal is to keep them and satisfy them through their entire lifetime,” said Naomi Kelman, a top executive with J&J’s Vistakon eye care division.

Presbyopia begins when the eye’s natural lens gradually loses its flexibility, making it hard to focus on close objects. When the length of your arms becomes a factor in your ability to read or you strain to make things out in dim light, that milestone in the aging process has likely arrived.

The challenge for contact lenses is to provide good reading vision, while also being able to focus clearly at intermediate and far distances.

Many multifocal lenses — including J&J’s decade-old Acuvue Bifocal Contact Lenses — have had limited appeal, according to Dr. Matthew Esperon, a Hackensack, New Jersey optometrist who has been prescribing J&J’s newer presbyopia product.

“A lot of times with progressive contact lenses, patients see ghosting and shadows when they’re reading an eye chart; but with these lenses patients are happier with the clarity of distance and reading,” said Esperon.

He began prescribing the new J&J product after it became available on a limited basis in February. J&J is continuing to roll out the product across the country.

So far, the diversified health care company has only launched lenses for “emerging” and “early” presbyopia, meaning for patients who have recently encountered the vision problem. They represent about 40 percent of presbyopia cases.

But J&J plans later this year to introduce lenses for older patients whose condition is more advanced.

The new product is made of the same smooth silicone hydrogel material used in J&J’s Acuvue Oasys brand of conventional lenses, meant for added comfort and to prevent eye dryness. But it employs a new J&J focusing technology — which the company calls “stereo precision” — developed over the past four years.

“The advantages of this lens are that it’s probably more comfortable than anything else, is easy to handle and is excellent for computer and distant vision,” said Dr. Roy Cohen, an optometrist with Town Optical in Manhattan, who estimates he has fitted about 50 patients with the product.

But multifocal lenses sold by the Cooper Cos Inc may be somewhat better for reading, Cohen said, an advantage that could diminish once J&J widens its product line. Another big rival is privately held Bausch & Lomb.

“The acceptance rate on most multifocal contact lenses is 60 percent to 80 percent, but with this it’s 80 to 90 percent,” Cohen said, referring to the percentage of patients who stick with the lenses. “I expect long-term satisfaction to be high.”

Cohen said the Acuvue Oasys for Presbyopia lenses cost about $360 a year — considerably more than conventional lenses — and noted that he charges more to fit patients with the new product.

Although J&J’s new lenses could keep many patients in contacts longer and lure back others who have already switched to eyeglasses, they can have only so much impact in the company’s ongoing struggle to break out of an earnings slump.

“Johnson & Johnson, with $60 billion in revenue, is so big that this new product is unlikely to move the needle on its own,” said Miller Tabak analyst Les Funtleyder.

Robert Baird & Co analyst Jeff Johnson said J&J accounts for almost half the $5.3 billion global annual market for soft contact lenses, but has only a 15 to 20 percent share of the $200 million multifocal segment.

Baird’s Johnson said it remains to be seen whether J&J’s new lens will greatly challenge Bausch & Lomb’s dominance in the multifocal market or wrest market share from Cooper.

Although Acuvue Oasys for Presbyopia has earned its stripes among middle-aged patients, Cohen said it’s also an open question whether future versions of the product will satisfy the tougher needs of older ones.

And he cautioned that the new brand, although a potential advance for many patients, falls short of perfection. “With multifocal contacts, you’re not looking for 20/20; you’re looking for 20/good.”

Reporting by Ransdell Pierson, editing by Gerald E. McCormick

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