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Bionic Vision Down Under

Participant in BVA human trialIt’s an exciting time in the world of bionic retinas, which are enabling people with blinding retinal diseases to perceive patterns of light. This, in turn, allows them to interpret basic shapes and objects, thereby improving their mobility and independence. Second Sight’s Argus II is available in the United States and Europe, and Retina Implant AG’s Alpha IMS is also on the market in Europe. Many research groups around the world are developing devices as well.

One of those is Bionic Vision Australia (BVA), a research consortium which recently completed the first human study of its innovative bionic retina technology. I recently interviewed Anthony Burkitt, a professor of engineering at the University of Melbourne and director of BVA, about the consortium’s work. Below are highlights from our conversation:

What got Australian researchers interested in bionic retinas?
I worked for many years with cochlear implants for providing hearing to deaf people. They were originally developed in Australia, and today, about 300,000 people around the world use them. Recognizing they were a mature and reliable technology, a group of us got together and explored how the technology could be used in other areas.

One application that really stood out was blindness, particularly when caused by degenerative eye diseases. We invested significant time and effort into miniaturizing the technology so it could work within the confines of the eye’s anatomy to stimulate surviving nerve cells.

We put together a proposal and received funding from the Australian Research Council, an agency of the Australian government. We received $42 million in funding and launched our consortium in 2010.

What were the results of the human study of your bionic retina?
The study enrolled three patients who are blind from retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited disease in which the light-sensitive retina at the back of the eye progressively degenerates. The patients would typically come in one day a week and move around in the lab environment. We ran numerous tests to determine how they would use the implant in their everyday lives.

First, they identified shapes on a computer screen, and then were able to recognize letters and simple words. We also had them perform simple mobility tasks. That’s where we really see the benefits of this technology—to enable patients to move around and to see and avoid obstacles in their environment. For example, to recognize a chair or door, or see what’s on a table.

How does the device work?
The patient wears glasses, which have a camera that sends images to a processor that electrically stimulates an array of electrodes implanted in an area near the retina called the choroid. As an early prototype, we’re using a small number of electrodes, 22. The electrodes are like pixels to the user.

The reason for putting our first device in the suprachoroidal space is that it appears to be a safe and mechanically stable place for the electrode array. Our surgeons have developed a simple procedure to create a pocket to slide the electrode array in, and it stays there quite safely.

What are your next steps?
In the next phase, we’ll have a device with 44 electrodes. The trial is scheduled to begin in the first half of 2015. It will include three RP patients and run for 12 to 18 months. Patients will take the device home and use it in their everyday lives.

Based on what we know from cochlear implants, we believe these devices have the potential to be very useful, because the brain learns to interpret the signals it’s getting. The more often patients use it, the more benefit they derive. We’re really keen to see what benefits the patient can get from the 44-electrode version. We also have a 98-electrode version in development.

We have another technology in pre-clinical testing that uses diamond-carbon materials— compared to silicon and platinum, which we and most other groups are working with. This high-acuity device, which will have 256 electrodes, has the potential to provide central vision to enable people to do things like read large print and recognize faces. We have a way to go, but it will be interesting over the next couple of years to see how it plays out.

The big challenge for any implanted device is using materials that are safe for the lifetime of the patient. Everything has to be hermetically encapsulated so the body is protected from and doesn’t damage the electronics. Diamonds are essentially carbon and very well tolerated by the body. We just need to see if we can get the visual outcomes the patients want.

Pictured, above: a participant in the BVA human study. Photo courtesy of Bionic Vision Australia.


11 Responses to 'Bionic Vision Down Under'

  1. joe waldner says:

    My wife has RP, I am always looking for any information that can help in the days ahead.

  2. Kevin says:

    The device sounds great. I wonder when will it be deployed in various countries in order to help people with retinal problems. It actually resembles google glasses, but for the betterment of the vision. It looks cool on the wearer too.

  3. Pixium Vision http://www.pixium-vision.com is developing two innovative Vision Restoration Systems (VRS) : Epi-retinal IRIS® system that is currently in clinical trials across Europe and Sub-retinal wireless microphotodiode PRIMA system in development, that stimulate the retina to progressively obtain bionic vision.

    These systems harness the latest developments in neuromorphic image sensing, micro-, nano-, opto-electronics, neuromodulation and intelligent software algorithms, and enable Pixium Vision to develop solutions aimed at providing bionic vision as close as possible to normal.

    Pixium Vision was created in December 2011 by several renowned scientists from prestigious academic and technology institutes in France, such as the Institut de la Vision, le Centre National
    Hospitalier d’Ophtalmologie des Quinze-Vingts (CHNO), Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC).

    The Company is also collaborating closely with scientific groups and clinicians at leading research institutes and clinical centers around the world, including Universities of Ulm and Munich (Germany) and Stanford University (USA).

    Pixium Vision is listed on Euronext Paris stock exchange under the ticker PIX and ISIN FR0011950641.

  4. Anne Housego says:

    A great way to keep up to date with the latest in research in Australia and overseas, is through the Retina Australia organisation in your state. To find the contact details go to the Retina Australia website at http://www.retinaaustralia.com.au or freecall 1800 999 987

  5. Michael thrush says:

    Met lady in Cebu Philippines with RP.She was frightened about the future especially. In such an impoverished environment. Is there any realistic hope in the next decade.?

    • EyeOnTheCure says:

      I think that technologies such as Second Sight’s visual prosthetic (ARGUS-2), gene and stem cell therapy will eventually become standard treatments for retinal disease in the Western world. As such, it may take some time before these technologies make their way to impoverished geographic locations.

  6. Christina D C RATCLIFFE says:

    The research into alleviating retinitis pigmentosa is impressive and encouraging. If only something could be done for those who are are now totally blind from RP.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    This is some very interesting research that could clearly have a dramatic impact on those who have retinitis pigmentosa and other degenerative eye diseases. I read an enlightening article published by Gizmodo just the other day that talks about bionic eyes. It can be found here: http://gizmodo.com/bionic-eyes-can-already-restore-vision-soon-theyll-mak-1669758713 It seems like the technology is still extremely expensive, but it is very exciting to think about where we might be in the next ten or twenty years. I found it interesting to read about the differences in how the images are presented and processed as well as how the brain learns to interpret them.

  8. Victoria Meacham says:

    Appreciate any info. on this RP decease, this gives us such ‘hope’! Thankyou

  9. Such amazing stories all around the world. The technological advances in the diagnosis and treatment of retinal disorders and diseases have been truly remarkable. We’re always striving to narrow the gap between discovery and implementation.

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