Charles Posternack, BSc’77, MDCM’81, helps people emerge from dark rooms. Avulux, the company he co-founded, manufactures precision tinted eyeglasses, which alleviate the debilitating symptoms of migraines.
Posternack trained in another field altogether, gastroenterology. What led him to this innovation?
The answer: a mix of professional curiosity and personal interest.
He spent much of his career as a senior health executive in the US. As a frequent conference attendee who suffers from jet lag, he was curious to read about how blocking certain wavelengths of light can mitigate some of the ill effects of international travel. That led him to a paper out of the University of Utah about a cell called melanopsin, found at the back of the retina and which normally helps our eyes colour-correct in high-brightness situations. “They had a theory that this cell may be involved in the initiation or propagation of migraines,” says Posternack, of the work by Bradley Katz and Steven Blair.
At the time, Posternack’s then-27-year-old daughter had been suffering from migraines since she was 13. “When she would get a migraine attack, she would run up to her room, close the door, pull down the blind, turn off the light and not come back. She wouldn't eat and wouldn't drink,” he says, adding that episodes could last for three days. “It was hard to deal with as a father.”
As a healthcare executive always on the lookout for low-risk approaches to disease, he saw in this theory a possible solution to migraine attacks that did not involve taking medication. “For medicine, the highest value you could get is an effective treatment that has no adverse events or side effects,” says the President of KPC Healthcare, which counts nine health care facilities in the US.
It’s estimated that 3 million Canadians have migraines, with three-quarters of sufferers being women. It’s the world’s third-most prevalent and sixth-most debilitating condition, according to the World Health Organization.
Convinced of the potential to make a real difference, Posternack got in touch with the researchers and eventually formed a partnership with them. The manufacturing and testing of lenses began and they developed a technique to filter out up to 97% of the most painful, headache-inducing colours while allowing in beneficial light. Interestingly, other research came out of Harvard, which showed that white, blue, amber and red light increase headache pain intensity, and green light reduces it, which was consistent with the developed lens.
Posternack admits that early prototypes of the glasses were problematic. They were wrap-around models with dark lenses and required a film to be placed over the glass. While test subjects reported marked relief, the next iterations would prove to be more stylish and easier to manufacture on a mass scale. “We put light-blocking dyes into the matrix of the lens itself, so rather than reflect that light, we actually absorb it,” he says, explaining that the light being absorbed from all angles allowed for normal frames to be employed.
Results from their studies have found that more than 90 percent of users experienced significant pain relief and returned to normal activities, while 74 percent no longer needed additional medication to manage their migraine symptoms. In addition, 38 percent of those who wore the Avulux glasses had their symptoms disappear after putting on the devices at the onset of a migraine attack.
The company has received final patents in the US and Japan and is classified as a Class I medical device in Canada in addition to 31 other countries. Avulux is currently available to Canadians on their website.
The testimonials have been heartwarming. Users who had previously been unable to go out now talk about getting their lives back. As for Posternack’s daughter, she no longer gets migraine attacks, nor does her sister, a fellow migraineuse. In fact, the doctor’s younger daughter has become the VP of Sales at the growing company, which has many people with migraine on staff. “About 50 or 60 percent of the people who work with us have migraines. And for 100 percent of them, their migraine attacks are gone,” says Posternack.
Many Avulux users have also been wearing their glasses to help relieve their eyes after computer use, but the company has only anecdotal evidence to prove its efficacy for that. This is where McGill comes into pIay: “I want to do a research project with the Department of Ophthalmology, specifically related to the use of these lenses and eye strain,” says Posternack, who is in discussions with the University.
Posternack credits what is now the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences for his skills in helping improve patient outcomes. “McGill gave me the thirst for doing research,” he says, with his research curiosity leading him to pick up a paper on a specific retinal cell and eventually bring relief to so many migraine sufferers.