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Congressional Briefing Highlights Research Funding Need for Artificial Retina

Nearly 25 years ago, when Dr. Mark Humayun first envisioned the development of a bionic retina to enable the blind to see, scientific pundits equated the undertaking to a “moon shot,” implying that the project might be overly ambitious. However, thanks to sustained funding and innovative engineering by a team of engineers, scientists, and clinicians led by Dr. Humayun, 38 people with advanced retinitis pigmentosa, a vision-robbing retinal degenerative disease, are now successfully using implanted artificial retinas. Many of these individuals are participating in a clinical evaluation of the device led by Second Sight Medical Products, Inc.

David Brint, Vice President, Board of Directors, Foundation Fighting Blindness; Dr. Mark Humayun, Professor of Ophthalmology, Doheny Eye Center, USC; Thomas Zampieri, Director of Government Relations, Blinded Veterans Association.
Dr. Mark Humayun, Professor of Ophthalmology,
Doheny Eye Center, USC; David Brint, Vice President,
Board of Directors, Foundation Fighting Blindness;
Thomas Zampieri, Director of Government
Relations, Blinded Veterans Association.

At an April 29 congressional briefing hosted by the Alliance for Eye and Vision Research and the Foundation Fighting Blindness, Dr. Humayun discussed how the artificial retina is enabling those who are otherwise completely blind to identify doors, crosswalks, and utensils on a table. Many users of the device can sort dark and light laundry. One woman with the artificial retina saw fireworks and the moon for the first time in decades.

The innovative device is a tiny computer array (i.e., chip) that is implanted on the retina in the back of the eye. A small, inconspicuous video camera placed in the nose bridge of a pair of sunglasses transmits images wirelessly back to the artificial retina.

Dr. Humayun explained that the device needs to be very compact and survive the “hostile” environment of the human body for several years. “To develop the artificial retina, we needed to merge the principles of biology with the principles of engineering,” he added. “It wasn’t easy.”

The Department of Energy (DOE) Artificial Retina Program has played a major role in the project as both a funding source and developer of highly innovative technologies through their national laboratories. The Foundation Fighting Blindness provided funding to Dr. Humayun during the early stages of the device’s development.

A key goal of the project is to develop the artificial retina with more electrodes — the more electrodes, the more detailed vision the implant provides. The current version has 60 electrodes. Dr. Humayun and the DOE team plan to begin human testing of a 240-electrode array in the next few years.

At 1,000 electrodes, Dr. Humayun said, users should be able to read large print and recognize the faces of loved ones. “It’s a big technological jump,” he explained, “but at that stage, the artificial retina will be a huge benefit to as many as tens of millions of people with retinal degenerative diseases, including those who have lost their ability to see detail due to more  prevalent conditions like age-related macular degeneration.”

Over the last seven years, the DOE has provided $70 million in funding for the artificial retina project which supports research at five of their national laboratories and four universities. Dr. Humayun said that another $30 million is needed to develop the 1,000-electrode device and “finish the job.” He added that the innovative implantable technology being developed is not only applicable to the eye, it also has potential to improve existing therapeutic devices including the cochlear implant, cardiac pacemakers, and deep brain stimulators for Parkinson’s disease.

In addition to making a formal presentation to congressional staff, Dr. Humayun met individually with several congressional leaders to further educate them about the promise of the artificial retina.

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