In March, Gabriel Licina pinned his eyes open and had his friend, Jeffrey Tibbetts, place several drops of a carefully calibrated liquid into his eyes. After a few minutes, to let the drops settle in, they headed outside to a dark field. The drops contained a small amount of a chemical called Chlorin e6, or ce6. The chemical has been used in cancer treatment for years, but that’s not why Licina put it in his eyes. Licina and his team were using it for another property: ce6 makes people’s eyes more sensitive to red light. They had used it to make night-vision drops.
Out in the field, Licina says it wasn’t a dramatic effect. “I wasn’t like ‘Oh my gosh I’m Riddick!’” he told me, referencing the titular protagonist of the science-fiction film with a laugh. “It was more like, ‘Oh hey look I can see this thing that I didn’t see previously. Why is everybody tripping, can’t you look at that thing right there?’” Which was both surprising and not, says Licina. “This is something that we’ve noticed in multiple projects now, it’s like, there’s a huge difference between what you want it to be and actual biological reality.”
Licina and Tibbetts once made up a group called Science for the Masses. Licina has worked in a handful of molecular biology labs, and Tibbetts is a registered nurse. The two have since gone their separate ways, but they came upon the ce6 idea while they were working on another way of getting night vision that involved using vitamin A2. After about six months of reading papers and fiddling with their formula, they were ready to try out the ce6 solution.