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Bionic eye advances at 2019 Gerard Crock lecture

The results of more than a decade’s work on a bionic eye were showcased in Melbourne for the Centre for Eye Research Australia’s (CERA) 11th Annual Gerard Crock Lecture.

Associate Professor Penny Allen, Australia’s first female vitreoretinal surgeon and lead researcher on CERA’s bionic eye project, delivered the 2019 presentation to a full theatre at the University of Melbourne campus.

Australia’s bionic eye project dates back to 2010, when funding was allocated by the Australian Research Council to support its development.

Collaborators from the Bionics Institute, CERA, the University of New South Wales came together under the banner of Bionic Vision Australia to develop the device, which culminated in a two-year clinical trial involving three patients with profound vision loss.

The bionic eye consists of a series of electrodes placed in the eye’s suprachoroidal tissue that stimulate the retinal nerves at the back of the eye. It is designed for patients with retinitis pigmentosa and helps them overcome their lack of functional photoreceptors. A camera attached to a pair of glasses captures images, which are processed and transmitted to the implant via an external device.

Patients with the implant see flashes of white light, which are designed to help them navigate the world in conjunction with other aids.

This initial trial showed the surgery and device were both safe, with all three patients undergoing successful visual rehabilitation and experiencing improvements in their daily life. Patients reported elements of their environment were are not aware of with their natural eyes, such as people passing by and parts of buildings.

The prototype’s success allowed the team to develop a second-generation version, which is currently being tested in a four-patient trial. The new device has a larger array of electrodes for greater detail, and participants are currently learning how to use the visual information it provides.

“[The participants have] additional pieces of information to use in conjunction with other aids,” Allen said

The project now has more preclinical data than any other bionic eye project in the world. Future versions are expected to have an improved resolution, however its capacity to slow the progress of retinitis pigmentosa might be a more  significant benefit. Several studies have shown that stimulating the retina with low levels of electrical current activates Müller cells, leading to an increase in growth factors and a decrease of inflammation.

The annual event is named in honour the first professor of ophthalmology at the University of Melbourne and pioneering researcher and inventor Professor Gerard Crock.