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Bionic eye partially restores sight in four Australians

21/11/2018By Myles Hume
Four blind people have had their vision partially restored following clinical trials of bionic eye technology in Melbourne.

Bionic Vision Technologies (BVT), an Australian medical device developer, revealed clinical trial results involving patients with the degenerative genetic condition retinitis pigmentosa at the 2018 RANZCO Scientific Congress in Adelaide on November 19.

“We have completed surgeries on four patients to implant the device and the team is very pleased with their progress,” principal investigator Associate Professor Penny Allen, of the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) and head of the Vitreoretinal Unit at The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital (RVEEH), said.

“All four patients have had a sense of sight restored and are in the process of learning how to use the bionic eye for mobility and other activities. They are only just able to see light going on and off and have to learn to interpret that information from the device and require training to do that.”

“All four patients have had a sense of sight restored and are in the process of learning how to use the bionic eye for mobility and other activities.”
Penny Allen, CERA

Before the device was implanted the patients were unable to see a hand held in front of them and required a guide dog or stick when walking. Now they can walk unaided in their backyard, identify doorways and objects on a table.

According to BVT, the visual prosthesis – completed two years ahead of schedule – consists of implanted and body worn components.

The patient wears glasses with a small side-mounted video camera. A live feed is processed and transmitted via an implanted microchip to an electrode array placed in the suprachoroidal space behind the retina. The electrodes stimulate remaining cells in the retina, generating spots of light that give patients a sense of vision.

Bionic Vision Australia (BVA) – a consortium of leading universities and research institutes established in 2010 and funded by the Australian Research Council – pioneered the technology after the Federal Government tasked it with developing a bionic eye. BVA wound down its operation in 2016 to allow the newly formed BVT to commercialise the technology it had developed, however its members maintain a stake in the company.

BVT also received $23.6 million in April 2017 from Hong Kong-based investors, allowing it to accelerate development and clinical studies.

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An earlier study of three patients established the safety of a prototype but restricted use to the lab. The recent study uses a permanent device that can be used daily.

“We believe the Australian bionic eye being tested has advantages over international competitors, including a superior surgical approach, stability of the device and unique vision processing software that aims to improve the patient’s experience,” Allen said.

“Based on our results so far, we know that our approach is safer and less invasive, and the patients have all made impressive progress with mobility and activities of daily living.”

Retina Australia chairman Mr Leighton Boyd said the organisation welcomed technological advances that provided support and independence to people and families affected by the debilitating condition.

“The ability to regain a sense of sight will make a positive difference to the lives of people diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa,” he said.

Retinitis pigmentosa is the leading cause of inherited blindness globally and affects about one in every 4,000 people, or around 1.5 million people. There is currently no cure.


More reading:

Australian company given $18m to develop bionic eye
Bionic eye: creating hope for the blind


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