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A vision for vision
Imagine how you would feel if gradually you lost your sight, and you knew there was nothing that you could do about it? This is the reality for thousands of people with degenerative eye diseases like macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.
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. There are few ways to predict its onset, progression or severity and it can lead to complete blindness within a decade.
A clear goal in sight
We hoped to do for vision what the cochlear implant has done for hearing
Professor Gregg Suaning
By 2009, Lovell and Suaning’s research had progressed so substantially that it was instrumental in establishing Bionic Vision Australia (BVA), a consortium attracting an incredible $42m of Special Research Initiative funding from the Australian Research Council.
BVA made rapid progress. By 2012 the research team implanted 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.
“We were really excited by the first trial because it proved the technology and implementation technique works,” says Suaning.
Encouraged by these results, they joined forces with a team of elite surgical experts and began pre-clinical work that in 2015 culminated in the successful demonstration of the fully implantable UNSW Phoenix99 bionic eye system.
The 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.
How the bionic eye works
The bionic vision system consists of a camera, attached to a pair of glasses, which transmits high-frequency radio signals to a microchip implanted in the retina. Electrodes on the implanted chip convert these signals into electrical impulses to stimulate cells in the retina that connect to the optic nerve. These impulses are then passed down along the optic nerve to the vision processing centres of the brain, where they are interpreted as an image.