A major step towards helping the blind to see again has been taken, with an Australian-developed ‘bionic eye’ receiving ethics approval to start human trials.
Professor Jeffrey Rosenfeld at the Monash Vision Group says patient recruitment for the first trial will begin in the next two months.
“This is a very major milestone for us,” Prof Rosenfeld told AAP while at the Health Beyond Research; Innovation Showcase in Sydney yesterday.
He said the approval granted by the Alfred Health Ethics Committee is a vindication of what his team has achieved so far.
“We can now start manufacturing enough of the devices to go into our first patient,” he said.
“I would aim to do one or two patients to start with just to do very detailed testing and make sure the device is doing everything we are hoping its going to do.
“Then once we have shown that, we can then start doing more patients and get other centres to take it on as well, both in Australia and overseas,” he said.
The Gennaris Bionic Vision System, or bionic eye, comprises a miniature camera worn by the user on custom designed headgear.
This is linked to a processing computer – a bit bigger than a mobile phone – which transforms the images captured by the camera to patterns and dots like pixels.
Each of these dots stimulate a tiny 5mm computer chip containing 500,000 electrical transistors that has been surgically implanted in the brain via a wireless antenna worn on the back of the head.
“So it bypasses the eyes altogether,” explained Prof Rosenfeld.
“Anyone with glaucoma or who have lost their eyes through trauma are very suitable for our device because it’s going directly into the brain,” he said.
Prof Rosenfeld says much like the Cochlear ear implant, the brain would have to slowly adapt to the ‘artificial’ vision.
While it doesn’t promise complete restoration of vision, the professor is confident it will give some sight back to those who are completely blind.
“What we hope is that the person will be able to recognise shapes in front of them like a saucer and cup or a spoon, where the doorway is, whether people are moving or not; these are the sorts of things people should get out of it. They may also be able to read large print as well,” said Prof Rosenfeld.
The device has been in development for several years.