The success of the James Webb Space Telescope, launched Christmas Day 2021 and considered the world’s most powerful, in part belongs to New Mexico’s Dan Neal.
Scientists eager to avoid the optical problems that nearly doomed the Hubble Space Telescope turned to Neal and his team of Albuquerque researchers to fine-tune the giant mirror on the James Webb Space Telescope to help ensure that it returns sharp images of the universe.
Neal uses the same technology to measure tiny aberrations in the human eye, providing an accurate prescription for correcting vision. A diagnostic tool Neal developed is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to guide LASIK procedures.
A 1976 Eldorado High School graduate, Neal developed a sensor during his 13 years on staff at Sandia National Laboratories that can precisely measure light using thousands of tightly packed lenses.
“It is an array of lenses,” Neal said of the sensor. “Each lens is about the diameter of a human hair, and there are about 5,000 of them in a little chip about the size of your thumbnail.”
The sensor measures the direction that light is traveling at many points, allowing researchers to fully characterize the light beam. The versatile sensor can measure any kind of light, whether it is bounced off a mirror or transmitted through the eye.
“If you want to measure the eye, you project a little bit of light into the eye and see how light comes back from the eye,” he said.
The ability of the sensor to accurately map the eye led to the development of a diagnostic tool called an aberrometer, which Neal first introduced in 2000.
The aberrometer measures an eye’s prescription at 1,000 data points across the pupil, mapping the cornea back to the retina, making it ideal for LASIK treatments.
LASIK is a surgical technique that uses lasers to correct vision by reshaping the surface of the cornea.
Neal co-founded a Sandia Laboratories spinoff firm called WaveFront Sciences in 1996 that was purchased by Abbott Laboratories in 2009.
Neal’s operation today employs 20 people in Albuquerque. The term “wavefront” refers to the measurable light that emerges from the eye.
Dr. Stephen Coleman, an ophthalmologist and Director of Coleman Vision in Albuquerque, which specializes in LASIK, met Neal in 1999 at the first International Wavefront Congress in Santa Fe, where Neal demonstrated a prototype of his aberrometer to a few scientists and ophthalmologists.
Coleman was a Principal Investigator in the first FDA clinical trial for Neal’s invention in 2002 and all subsequent studies since then. He uses the technology in his clinic today.
Neal “to a great extent changed the way LASIK is done, not just nationally, but internationally,” Coleman said. “It literally changed the way that we approach LASIK, which is why modern LASIK is so incredibly powerful.”
Neal’s aberrometer, marketed by Abbott Laboratories as the iDesign Advanced WaveScan Studio System, is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is now widely used across the U.S., a spokesman for Abbott said. The device has also been widely used in Europe and Japan since 2012.