An incredible vision

Revolutionary bionic eye researchers receive welcome 1.1M funding boost to continue their vital work, but more is still needed.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has recently awarded UNSW bionic eye researchers $1.1M to test the effectiveness of the bionic eye as a therapy and guide the next steps in bringing this exciting technology into mainstream clinical practice.

Professor Gregg Suaning and Professor Nigel Lovell in the lab

UNSW’s bionic eye journey goes back to 1997, when co-inventors Professors Nigel Lovell and Gregg Suaning had an incredible vision: to restore sight to people with retinitis pigmentosa and age related macular degeneration.

“We hoped to do for vision what the cochlear implant has done for hearing,” says Suaning.

Retinitis pigmentosa is the leading cause of blindness in younger people. The degenerative condition affects around 20,000 Australians and two million people worldwide, and strikes in the prime of life often when a person is in their 30s. It can lead to complete blindness within a decade. There are few ways to predict its onset, progression or severity, and expensive pharmaceuticals are available in developed countries that can only slow, rather than reverse, the condition.

Lovell and Suaning’s research progressed so substantially that in 2009 it was instrumental in establishing Bionic Vision Australia (BVA), a consortium which attracted an incredible $42M of Special Research Initiative funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC).

BVA made rapid progress. By 2012 the research team was ready to implant their first partially implanted prototype into three patients with retinitis pigmentosa. The 24 electrode array with external electronics allowed users to see spots of light, called phosphenes, and with special cameras and algorithms they were able to get a sense of distance, with phosphenes getting brighter as they got closer to a still object.

We hoped to do for vision what the cochlear implant has done for hearing

Professor Gregg Suaning

“We were really excited by the first trial because it proved the technology and implementation technique works,” says Suaning. “Patients ‘learn’ to use the technology, in the same way a person implanted with a cochlear ear implant ‘learns’ to hear electrical impulses.”

“It’s been amazing,” says implant recipient Dianne Ashworth. “The more I’ve used it, the more natural it feels.”

Encouraged by these early results, the team at UNSW joined forces with a team of elite surgical experts around Sydney and began pre-clinical work that recently culminated in the successful demonstration of the UNSW Phoenix99 bionic eye system. The Phoenix99 devices are fully-implantable, and represent a significant advance for the team as they accelerate towards their next milestone of human implantation of the Phoenix99 system. This new device represents many world firsts in neural stimulation technologies and should allow for vision that is several times better than previously achieved. Lovell hopes they can implant up to a dozen patients with the device over the next two years. Surgery takes two to three hours and when complete the only tell-tale sign of the device would be a small disc behind the ear that is used to transmit data and power to the implant. The signals are then used to configure the implant to deliver electrical impulses to the back of the eye.

The other vital piece of equipment is a small camera attached to a pair of glasses. The images define the stimulation of the remaining nerve cells in the damaged retina, send signals to the visual cortex of the brain and translate them into images.

The device has the potential to transform the lives of millions worldwide: up to two million people live with retinitis pigmentosa and up to 196 million have age-related macular degeneration. While there are over a million Australians with macular degeneration, with the ageing population this is expected to almost double by 2030.

How you can help

Despite the welcomed boost of the NHMRC grant, continued progress is not a certainty as the researchers scramble for additional funding to sustain this critical research. To help restore the gift of sight to those who have gone blind, and cannot be treated with medication, an additional $10 million is needed over the next five years. If you are able to help with this program, in funding pre-clinical trials, patient care or device manufacture, please contact Victoria Miller, UNSW Engineering Development Manager, +612 9385 5364;

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