Australian researchers to start trials of fully implantable bionic eye
SYDNEY, Australia: A team of researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney has developed the first fully implantable bionic eye, Phoenix99, which is expected to restore vision far more effectively than do current vision restoration devices. After successfully testing the technology in preclinical work and receiving substantial funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, the scientists are now ready to begin trials in human implantation.
In developing this new technology, the researchers aimed to help patients affected by retinitis pigmentosa, as well as age-related macular degeneration. “We hoped to do for vision what the cochlear implant has done for hearing,” said Prof. Gregg Suaning, one of the inventors of the bionic eye.
Retinitis pigmentosa is the leading cause of blindness in younger people and it affects around two million people worldwide. The inherited degenerative condition can lead to complete blindness within ten years and cannot be reversed. In developed countries, medication is available to treat the disease; however, it is expensive and can only slow the condition. Age-related macular degeneration affects up to 196 million people worldwide and, with the ageing population, is expected to nearly double by 2030.
The development of the first bionic eye at UNSW started in 1997 and has made rapid progress since 2009, when Bionic Vision Australia was established, a consortium that attracted A$42 million in funding from the Australian Research Council. In 2012, the research team successfully implanted the first prototype into three patients with retinitis pigmentosa. This first device was only partially implanted and allowed the patients to see spots of light, called phosphenes. Through special cameras and algorithms that made the phosphenes appear brighter when an object was getting closer, the patients were able to judge distances.
“We were really excited by the first trial because it proved the technology and implementation technique work,” Suaning stated. Encouraged by their first results, the researchers at UNSW joined forces with surgical experts around Sydney and together they developed the latest version of the bionic eye system, Phoenix99.
As the first neural stimulation technology worldwide, Phoenix99 is fully implantable. The only telltale sign of the device is a small disc behind the ear that transmits data to the implant and provides it with power. The signals from the disc are used to configure the implant to deliver electrical impulses to the back of the eye. Moreover, the patient has to wear a pair of glasses containing a small camera. The images captured by the camera define the stimulation of the remaining nerve cells in the damaged retina. Finally, the signals are sent to the visual cortex of the brain and translated into images.
The researchers hope to implant up to 12 patients with the device over the next two years. According to them, the surgery will only take 2–3 hours and in the future might help restore the vision of millions of patients worldwide. Despite the recent A$1.1 million funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, the researchers expect to need an additional A$10 million over the next five years to bring the technology into mainstream clinical practice.