WASHINGTON – After years of research, the first bionic eye has seen the light of day in the United States, giving hope to the blind worldwide.
Developed by Second Sight Medical Products, the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System has helped more than 60 people partially recover their sight, with some experiencing better results than others.
Consisting of 60 electrodes implanted in the retina and glasses fitted with a special minicamera, the Argus II has already won the approval of European regulators. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to follow suit soon, making the Argus II the world’s first widely available bionic eye.
“It’s the first bionic eye to go on the market in the world, the first in Europe and the first one in the U.S.,” said Brian Mech, the California-based firm’s vice president of business development.
Those who would benefit from the Argus II are people with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disease that results in the degeneration of the retinal photoreceptors. About 100,000 people in the U.S. are affected by the disease.
The photoreceptor cells convert light into electrochemical impulses that are transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve, where they are decoded into images.
“The way the prosthesis works (is) it replaces the function of the photoreceptors,” Mech said.
Thirty people between the ages of 28 and 77 — all completely blind — took part in the product’s clinical trial.
Mech said the outcomes varied by participant.
“We had some patients who got just a little bit of benefit and others who could do amazing things like reading newspaper headlines,” he said.
In some cases, the subjects could even see in color.
“Mostly they see in black and white, but we have demonstrated more recently we can produce color vision as well,” Mech said.
According to Mech, the Argus II is already available in several European countries for €73,000 ($99,120). A U.S. price has not been set but is likely to be higher, he added.
“Now we are (at) around 60 patients. . . . We have tons of surgeries scheduled, the number is growing almost daily,” he said.
Other researchers are also vying to develop bionic eyes of their own, some offering higher-resolution images with more electrodes implanted in the retina.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a team lead by John Wyatt is working on a system that would have up to 400 electrodes.
Stanford University’s Daniel Palanker has proposed a different approach, using tiny photovoltaic cells instead of electrodes.
This system would also help individuals who lost their sight due to age-related macular degeneration.
These photovoltaic cells convert light into electrical impulses that stimulate the nerve cells in the retina, which then transmit the signals to the brain.
This system has successfully been tested in rats, and the first clinical trial could begin in a year, probably in France.