Scientists are a step closer to creating a bionic eye which could help millions of blind people to see using a microchip implanted in the retina and a pair of glasses.
The Phoenix99 bionic vision system consists of a camera, attached to glasses, which transmits high-frequency signals to a microchip implanted in the retina. Electrodes on the chip convert these signals into electrical impulses to stimulate cells in the retina that connect to the optic nerve. These impulses are then passed along the optic nerve and are interpreted as an image in the brain.
“The image that is presented is by no means perfect, but it allows a degree of independence,” Professor Nigel Lovell said. “It will be able to restore some form of vision to tens of thousands of people in Australia and millions throughout the world. It’s a very exciting device.”
Biomedical engineering professor Gregg Suaning added, “We hope it will allow people with vision loss to identifying if a person, doorway or window is nearby.”
The tiny neuro-simulator chip, which is only two by four millimetres in size, contains close to a million wires.
Surgery to have the device implanted is estimated to take two to three hours.
Australian Minister for Trade and Industry Niall Blair recently visited the Sydney labs to meet the scientists working on the exciting project.
“The idea of bionics first leapt into the public imagination with the 1970s science fiction action television series the Six Million Dollar Man,” he said.
But Professor Gregg Suaning and his team at the University of Sydney are helping bring it to reality after developing microchip technology to give a sense of vision for those who have lost theirs.
“This is fantastic NSW innovation with potential to change the lives of millions of people who are losing sight from conditions like retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration,” Suaning said.
Lovell and Suaning’s research helped to form Bionic Vision Australia, which operated between 2009 and 2016. By 2012 the research team had implanted their first partially implanted prototype into three patients with retinitis pigmentosa and allowed them to see spots of light.
The professors then joined forces with a team of surgical experts and began work that in 2015 became the UNSW Phoenix99 bionic eye system.
Now three years on Professor Suaning says the team is preparing an application for ethics approval in the hope of conducting a ‘first-in-human’ trial next year and plan to test the device in a dozen patients by 2020.