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Quantum Leap for Bionic Eye
Norm Lipson | 30 April 2010
Although prototypes are already in use overseas, in Melbourne late March, researchers in the presence of the Prime Minister "re-announced" they had now completed the development of a bionic eye to be implanted in a human within three years. But it's apparent that overseas research groups have beaten us to the punch.And for some reason, Sydney group the Bionic Eye Foundation, which seemed ahead of the game, has not received any of the Government funding for its unique version of a bionic eye.
Australia's truly unique bionic eye, developed over a decade with hardly any funding, looks like being manufactured and tested off shore because of the lack of funding from the Australian Research Council.
This news comes on the heels of a recent announcement by Melbourne-based consortium Bionic Vision Australia (BVA) that it has developed a prototype which it intends to implant in a human in three years.
However, the Sydney-based group, the Bionic Eye Foundation, had already conducted animal trials and was ready for a human implant two years ago.
The Australian Bionic Eye
In April 2008, mivision ran a feature story headlined, "Bionic Eye: Aussie Team World First" in which its team leader, Professor Minas Coroneo announced that the Medical Ethics Committee had already cleared this group to implant its bionic eye into a patient.
And unlike all other bionic eye research, including that of the BVA, the Sydney team, in a world first, had developed a device implanted on the outer surface - the sclera of the globe of the eye, rather than needing to be placed inside the eye, which requires more invasive surgery.
But mivision has learned that the human implant was postponed and that the Bionic Eye Foundation did not receive any of the AUD$50 million funding provided by the Federal Government for bionic eye research.
At the time of publication, Professor Coroneo was overseas and unavailable for comment. No one else from the Bionic Eye Foundation was able to comment publicly, but mivision believes negotiations are currently underway for overseas involvement in the project.
In a case of déjà vu, Melbourne researchers recently announced that they had developed a prototype for a bionic eye which they hope to implant in a person by 2013. This announcement was made to a great deal of fanfare at a launch attended by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Last February, mivision reported that the group had expected to be ready to implant the device by 2013 and that the prototype consisted of a mini camera mounted on a pair of glasses that captures visual input and transforms it into electrical signals that stimulate neurones in the retina.
mivision has also reported that overseas groups have already done successful human trials of retinal implants and are ahead of the BVA.
BVA reiterated at the recent launch that the device would help patients suffering from degenerative vision loss to increase their mobility and independence.
"It's medical developments like the bionic eye that have the potential to improve the health and quality of life of Australians around this country and, in fact, people around the world," Mr. Rudd, whose Government provided AUD$42 million in funding, told the assembled media.
The BVA launched the prototype bionic eye on 30 March at the BVA consortium's official launch at the University of Melbourne. The prototype was developed by BVA researchers at the University of New South Wales and it was said at the launch that the BVA bionic eye would "deliver improved quality of life for patients suffering from degenerative vision loss caused by retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.
"The device, which is currently undergoing testing, consists of a miniature camera mounted on glasses that captures visual input, transforming it into electrical signals that directly stimulate surviving neurons in the retina. The implant will enable recipients to perceive points of light in the visual field that the brain can then reconstruct into an image".
According to Professor Anthony Burkitt, BVA Research Director and Professor of Engineering at the University of Melbourne: "We anticipate that this retinal implant will provide users with increased mobility and independence, and that future versions of the implant will eventually allow recipients to recognise faces and read large print."
BVA Chairman, Professor David Penington said the team's outstanding expertise would be the key to delivering their ambitious goal of providing bionic vision within the next five years.
"This is an exciting moment in our venture. The team's success is based on our world class multi-disciplinary approach which uses vision clinicians, retinal surgeons, neuroscientists, biomedical and electrical engineers from across the nation," he said.
BVA is a partnership of world-leading Australian research institutions collaborating to develop an advanced retinal prosthesis, or bionic eye, to restore the sense of vision to people with degenerative or inherited retinal disease. The partners of BVA are the University of Melbourne, the University of New South Wales, the Bionic Ear Institute, the Centre for Eye Research Australia and NICTA.
The official website of the International Eye Centre ran a story which stated in part: "BVA has developed the first prototype of a bionic eye that could restore rudimentary vision to blind people by 2013. But unlike the 'Six Million Dollar Man', recipients won't get to zoom in on evil plots from afar. Instead, the imagery the device currently produces is blocky and low-res at best. Still, anything is better than nothing, and probably beats seeing with your tongue ('tongue vision' detailed below).
"Gizmag (a technology magazine) expands on the story and details how the entire process works. The site reports that the overall problem is not in getting the signal to the brain, but to improve the resolution and detail of that signal. While the advanced first prototype can produce rough imagery for unaided navigation, the group wants to fine-tune the technology so that face and emotion recognition is a possibility in the next prototype-- 20/80 vision at the very least-- in 2013".
The Bionic Eye became the talk of the Government's 2020 summit in April 2008. Since then, there has been talk of Australia becoming a developer of the first bionic eye, but as mivision reported, this will not be the case because other countries have already tested their own versions.
In the U.K. and the U.S., bionic eyes have already been developed and fitted into patients.
In London last year, a man who lost his sight 30 years ago told the BBC that he could see flashes of light after being fitted with a bionic eye. Ron, 73, had the experimental surgery at London's Moorfield's eye hospital and says he can now follow white lines on the road, and even sort socks, using the bionic eye, known as Argus II which uses a camera and video processor mounted on sunglasses to send captured images wirelessly to a tiny receiver on the outside of the eye.
This receiver passes on the data via a tiny cable to an array of electrodes which sit on the retina - the layer of specialised cells that normally respond to light found at the back of the eye. When these electrodes are stimulated they send messages along the optic nerve to the brain, which is able to perceive patterns of light and dark spots corresponding to which electrodes have been stimulated. The hope is that patients will learn to interpret the visual patterns produced into meaningful images.
Ron told the BBC: "For 30 years I've seen absolutely nothing at all, it's all been black, but now light is coming through. Suddenly to be able to see light again is truly wonderful. I can actually sort out white socks, grey socks and black socks.
"My one ambition at the moment is to be able to go out on a nice, clear evening and be able to pick up the moon."
Consultant retinal surgeon Lyndon da Cruz, who carried out Ron's operation said the patients were starting to get meaningful visual stimuli from the technology.
"We are very encouraged by the trial's progress so far. The implants have been stable and functioning for six months, with consistent visual perceptions generated by the device.
"The trial remains inspiring in terms of presenting a very real and tangible step forward in treating patients with total vision loss, but with more than two years of the trial left to run, these are early days and continued testing will be crucial in determining the success of the new technology," said Dr. Cruz.
In the U.S., the idea of an artificial eye connected to a camera on a pair of glasses was developed by an American company called 'Second Sight'.
Surgeons used the bionic eye device on 50 to 70 patients suffering vision loss. After using the device, the patients were able to detect light, shapes and movement in a room. They were also able to distinguish between objects on a table and all of this without the aid of a guide dog or a stick.
Two years ago, the Boston Herald reported that the Boston Retinal Implant Project recently developed a bionic eye implant that will restore vision to those affected by degenerative blindness. The device works by being implanted into the back of the eyeball and working as a light transmitter to the brain, where the two are connected by a nerve/wire thinner than a human hair.
The Boston Herald said of the device: "Now, the technology has its limitations; it won't give sight to those born blind or who suffer glaucoma, nor will it offer perfect vision. Only for those who previously had sight, and a semi-functional optical nerve, is this possible. The idea is that it will give the blind a general sense of their surroundings so they can function on a basic level. But researchers do hope to improve the technology so that users can recognise things like facial detail and expressions in the future".
More recently, in Britain, a soldier left blind by a grenade in Iraq has had his life transformed by ground-breaking technology that enables him to "see" with his tongue.
24 year old Lance Corporal Craig Lundberg can read words, make out shapes and walk without assistance thanks to a device developed in the U.S. which could revolutionise life for other blind people.
Lundberg, from Liverpool in northwest England, completely lost his sight after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade while serving in Basra in 2007.
Faced with a life of relying on a guide dog, he was chosen by the Ministry of Defence as the first person in Britain to trial the BrainPort device, which could revolutionise treatment for the blind.
It converts images into electrical pulses which are sent to the tongue, where they cause a tingling sensation. The different strength of the tingles can be interpreted so the user can mentally visualise their surroundings and navigate around objects.
The device consists of a tiny video camera attached to a pair of sunglasses which are linked to a plastic "lollipop" which the user places on their tongue to read the pulses. The image is created by presenting white pixels from the camera as strong stimulation, black pixels as no stimulation, and grey levels as medium levels of stimulation, although interpreting the images takes intensive training.
"It feels like licking a nine volt battery or like popping candy," Lundberg told news agency Agence France-Presse.
"The camera sends signals down onto the lollipop and onto your tongue. You can then determine what they mean and transfer it to shapes.
"You get lines and shapes of things. It sees in black and white so you get a two-dimensional image on your tongue -- it's a bit like a pins and needles sensation.
"It's only a prototype, but the potential to change my life is massive. It's got a lot of potential to advance things for blind people."
Thanks to the device, Corp. Lundberg can now "pick up objects straight away. I can reach out and pick them up when before I would be fumbling around to feel for them."
Lundberg and British military surgeons have visited the U.S. for training in how to use the device, which is being developed by a team led by Gale Pollock, a former major general in the U.S. army.
It is hoped that with further refinement, the BrainPort could be used for other blind British military personnel. Just a few weeks ago, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the following: "Israeli and international scientists are working to develop a revolutionary technology that could restore sight to millions. Within a few years, one or more versions of a bionic eye for people with degenerative conditions affecting the retina are expected to be available commercially.
"Damage to the retina, the membrane that lines the inside of the eyeball and is connected via the optic nerve to the brain, is among the leading causes of vision loss in the developed world. The innovative technology relies on the brain's acquired ability to process visual data. As such, it will only provide a limited field of vision.
"Nano Retina, based in Herzliya Pituah and founded by entrepreneur Yossi Gross, is developing an implant that will replace damaged photo-receptors in the eyes and provide grey-scale vision to a resolution of 1300 pixels for the first generation of chips and 5000 pixels for the second generation. The company hopes to begin marketing its implant within five years.
"The German biomedical firm Retina Implant AG, meanwhile, recently reported the successful conclusion of a clinical trial involving 11 subjects who lost their sight due to retinitis pigmentosa. A tiny chip implanted underneath the retina enables light entering through the pupil to be converted into neural signals that are received by the brain. The chip is powered by a tiny external battery that is affixed behind the ear.
"Nano Retina engineers say their chip will enable users to identify facial features and to watch television. While both chips use a similar biological infrastructure, Nano Retina's battery will be charged wirelessly, by a mini-laser attached to a pair of eyeglasses".
In other recent developments, American researchers are hoping to produce a camera the size of a pea that could be implanted within the eyeball, replacing natural tissue with artificial technology which could be available within three to five years.
The system uses a video camera to capture images. These are converted into electrical signals, which are transmitted wirelessly to the implant behind the retina. The electrodes in the implant unscramble the signal to create a crude black-and-white picture that is relayed along the optic nerve to the brain. The brain can then perceive patterns of light and dark spots corresponding to the electrodes stimulated.
According to Mark Humayun, Professor of Ophthalmology and Biomedical Engineering at the Doheny Eye Institute in Los Angeles, California, which developed the technology: "The camera is very, very small, and very low power, so it can go inside your eye and couple your eye movement to where the camera is. With the kind of missing information the brain can fill in, this field is really blossoming. In the next four to five years I hope, and we all hope, that we see technology that's much more advanced."
Linda Moorfoot is one of a few American patients to be fitted with the current version of the implant. She had been totally blind for more than a decade with the inherited condition retinitis pigmentosa.
With the aid of the camera mounted on a pair of sunglasses, she can now see a rough image of the world made up of light and dark blocks.
"When I go to the grandkids' hockey game or soccer game I can see which direction the game is moving in. I can shoot baskets with my grandson, and I can see my granddaughter dancing across the stage. It's wonderful," she told Sky News.
Ms. Moorfoot's implant has just 16 electrodes but the U.S. surgeons have helped to fit a more advanced device, with 60 electrodes, to two British patients to give clearer images. In California, scientists are developing an implant with 1,000 electrodes, which should allow facial recognition.
"It is very, very good news that devices have been developed. It is very good news that in experimental trials some individuals have had these inserted," said John Marshall of St Thomas' Hospital in London, and the British Retinitis Pigmentosa Society.
"However, the general public should not run away with the idea that this is going to be routine surgery for blind people in the immediate future because there is an enormous amount to learn," he warned.
We anticipate that this retinal implant will provide users with increased mobility and independence, and that future versions of the implant will eventually allow recipients to recognise faces and read large print