IT’S an amazing story. The day before 55-year-old Lorraine Helliwell started wearing her Noctura 400 light-emitting sleep mask she underwent a routine eye examination at her local hospital.

As someone who has suffered from diabetic retinopathy - a serious sight-threatening condition which leads to damage to the back of the eye - Lorraine needed regular check-ups by an eye specialist.

Despite previously having laser treatment in both eyes to temporarily halt the build up of diseased blood vessels she was told that would need a second, longer appointment with an eye consultant.

That appointment was duly made, but in the intervening six weeks before her next appointment Lorraine took part in a remarkable experiment to test the potentially healing powers of the Noctura 400 sleep mask, designed and produced by North-East company PolyPhotonix at their headquarters at NETPark, Sedgefield, County Durham.

Mrs Helliwell, who lives near Longframlington, in Northumberland and has type one diabetes, wore the sleep mask for six weeks, allowing its healing light therapy to penetrate her eyes.

Tricking the eyes that it is still daytime, the low-level light emitted by the masks interferes with a natural process which means the eye produces new blood vessels when it is dark.

In a non-diabetic this tissue growth at night is beneficial, but in someone with diabetic retinopathy it just makes the problem worse. Wearing the sleep mask stops the production of damaged blood vessels and allows the eye to heal.

So Mrs Helliwell was thrilled when the consultant told her he could see no sign of any new damage to the eyes and discharged her.

Last night, at the world’s first commercial launch of the Noctura 400, at the Sedgefield offices of PolyPhotonix, Mrs Helliwell told her story to around 30 people who have expressed an interest in trying out the new sleep masks.

She told them : “There is no contest that I would choose the mask over the laser treatment. It is easy to use and removes any traumatic experience that occurred when having my eyes lasered.

“I still wear the mask at night and would encourage anyone with diabetes and suffering from retinopathy to do the same.”

She said the alternative to laser therapy, which involved injections into the eye , “fills me with horror”.

The North-East launch of the Noctura 400, which will be available privately through the Wades opticians chain as part of a limited roll-out, follows 20,000 hours of clinical trials. More trials involving 600 patients are currently going on at hospitals across the UK.

The sleep masks can already be used by patients and is on a fast track towards approval for use by NHS. It is thought it could save the Health Service £1bn a year by preventing diabetic retinopathy.