The evolution of humankind has just taken a giant leap forward. Thirty clinical trial participants who were completely blind can now partially see. In total, some 60 people have benefitted.
"We had some patients who got just a little bit of benefit and others who could do amazing things like reading newspaper headlines," announced Brian Mech, vice president of business development at Second Sight Medical Products, makers of The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System.
"Now we are (at) around 60 patients,” he reported to AFP. “We have tons of surgeries scheduled, the number is growing almost daily.”
The Argus II is a retinal implant of 60 electrodes that wirelessly receive signals from a mini camera fitted into a pair of specially designed eye glasses. The implant converts the camera’s signals into electrical impulses, which then travel along the eye’s optic nerve to the brain.
Mech told AFP:
"The way the prosthesis works (is) it replaces the function of the [eye’s damaged] photoreceptors.”
"Mostly they see in black and white, but we have demonstrated more recently we can produce color vision as well.”
“The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System,” explains the company, “is intended to provide electrical stimulation of the retina to elicit visual perception in blind subjects with severe to profound retinitis pigmentosa.”
Wikipedia defines Retinitis Pigmentosa as “an inherited, degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness,” affecting some 100,000 people in the United States alone.
The company describes how their technology works:
“The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is designed to bypass the damaged photoreceptors altogether. A miniature video camera housed in the patient’s glasses captures a scene. The video is sent to a small patient-worn computer … where it is processed and transformed into instructions that are sent back to the glasses via a cable. These instructions are transmitted wirelessly to an antenna in the implant. The signals are then sent to the electrode array, which emits small pulses of electricity. These pulses … bypass the damaged photoreceptors and stimulate the retina’s remaining cells, which transmit the visual information along the optic nerve to the brain.”
While the images are not exactly as they naturally appear, the prosthesis creates “the perception of patterns of light which patients can learn to interpret as visual patterns.”
The revolutionary technology has been in development for well over a decade. A short while after the Sylmar, California, privately held company was founded in 1998, “the first clinical trial (Argus I) began in 2002 (6 subjects in total). With the experience gained from the Argus I trial, and further technological developments, a second generation device was created – the Argus II. For this device, a two-patient pilot study was initiated in Mexico in 2006, followed by a 30-patient trial in 10 centers across Europe and the United States,” the company recounts.
The US Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the prosthesis, which is already available in several European countries for 73,000 euros, or some $99,000 US.
Yet as is common with any new technology, it won't be long before others begin pushing farther into the open field. Already another team, headed by John Wyall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is developing a similar retinal implant system of up to 400 electrodes to achieve a much greater picture resolution.
A third group under Daniel Palanker at California's Stanford University is venturing along a new line altogether by replacing electrodes with tiny photovoltaic cells, a system already successfully tested in rats.
As Discovery.com reports, George Goetz of Palanker’s group announced the company's ambition:
"We're thinking about implanting up to 5,000 of these cells at the back of the eye that would theoretically allow for a resolution that is ten times better.”
While supporting both the Argus and Palanker projects, The National Eye Institute is hoping for even more possibilities in the fields of stem cell research and optogenetics, where the damanged retina cells themselves might some day be actually repaired.
Though such great achievements in science and technology sing loud and clear the ingenuity of humankind, they reserve their greatest testimony for the human spirit driving humanity’s relentless pursuit of improvement.