Bionic vision: the fight for sight

What is the bionic eye?

Often when we talk about the bionic eye, people get the idea of some sort of artificial eye implanted to replace visual function.

In reality, the “eye” comprises a series of components. It is an implanted system that includes a retinal implant with an array of electrodes that electrically stimulate surviving nerve cells at the back of the eye.

In a nutshell, this retinal prosthesis is designed to restore some sense of vision to people who are blind due to degenerative retinal conditions.

Who are we?

Bionic Vision Australia is a group of research collaborators from Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Our consortium is set up as a joint venture between five member organisations: the Bionic Ear Institute, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, NICTA, the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales.

We also have researchers involved from two supporting organisations: Australian National University and the University of Western Sydney. There are just over 100 researchers and students working on various parts of the project.

As part of our team, we have experts in the fields of ophthalmology, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, materials science, neuroscience, vision science, psychophysics, wireless integrated-circuit design, surgical, preclinical and clinical practice.

It is this multi-disciplinary approach that sets us apart from our international competitors. Such an integrated approach is the soundest way to deliver the best possible outcomes for our future patients.

How will the bionic eye work?

Current bionic vision technology is based on a camera that captures images, processes them and sends data to a retinal implant. This implant contains a number of electrodes that stimulate the remaining cells of the retina to elicit the perception of vision.

We are simultaneously developing two devices: the “wide-view” and the “high-acuity” retinal implants. There are a number of technical differences between them, but essentially, both devices aim to restore some sense of vision by electrically stimulating cells in the retina based on information captured by an external camera.

The “wide-view” device contains 98 stimulating electrodes and aims to aid patients with navigation and independence. The “high-acuity” device contains roughly 1000 electrodes and aims to restore some functional central vision, enabling patients to recognise details so they can see faces and possibly read large print.

How the bionic eye works.

Who is it for?

The predominant cause of inherited blindness is a group of conditions called retinitis pigmentosa, which is characterised by the progressive loss of vision, and affects 1.5 million people worldwide.

In Australia, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which most frequently affects people over 65, is responsible for almost half of all cases of legal blindness.

The technology we are developing will primarily be of benefit to people with these conditions. Our first patients will be those who are experiencing blindness but, with time and further research, it is possible that this technology will also be suitable for people with low vision.

What the technology won’t do is help those who have been blind since birth: for patients to benefit from these devices, they need to have been able to see in the past so their brain knows what to do with the information it receives from a bionic eye.

Why is this happening in Australia?

Australia has a rich history in the area of medical bionic devices, from the pacemaker to the cochlear implant, now known popularly as the “bionic ear”. Our consortium, Bionic Vision Australia, is fortunate to benefit from this experience and the understanding of what it takes to bring a successful medical device to the market.

Who are we competing with?

Internationally, there are around 30 groups working on this technology, including the Retina Implant AR in Germany (based at the University of Tubingen) and the Boston Retinal Implant group in the USA.

Another group from the USA, Second Sight, recently announced it had received regulatory approval in Europe to proceed with marketing its device, the Argus II. While this is of course a great achievement, it does not imply that this device will be the only technology on the market in the future.

At Bionic Vision Australia we are working on delivering a device that is safe, effective and can stay safely implanted over the lifetime of the patient.

It’s worth pointing out that the context in which we worked on the bionic ear development was one of significant international competition. One company, 3M, was marketing its device before Australian researchers had even begun patient tests, and yet Cochlear Ltd is now the global leader in bionic hearing technology and has made a profound impact on the lives of more than 200,000 cochlear implant recipients around the world.

What stage is the Australian technology at?

Our researchers are working through an extensive program of safety and efficacy tests for our devices.

The results of these studies then feed into the device development and stimulation strategy teams to ensure that we deliver implants that provide the best possible functional benefits for our future patients.

The clinical team is working with patients who have retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration to understand more about the retina, and again, feed these findings back into the device development process.

Finally, our surgical team is developing techniques for implantation and support the work of the preclinical team.

Where to from here?

Our first set of patient tests for the “wide-view” device will be completed by the end of 2013. If these are successful we will begin the commercialisation process so we can deliver a device to market as soon as possible.

The results will also inform and speed up the development of the “high-acuity” device, which will hopefully give us the potential to leap-frog international competitors.

And finally

It’s probably too early to say just how much vision we will be able to restore, but with the fullness of time and continued dedication and effort, who knows what will be possible in years to come?

If you are interested in participating in patient tests with Bionic Vision in Australia, please contact the clinical team.

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