Restoring sight to the blind used to be an impossible feat before modern technology. Even with the most advanced artificial retinas available today, total restoration of sight is, more often than not, just a futile hope. The reason it is so difficult to restore sight is because eyesight is connected to neurons in the brain, and any procedure involving the brain is incredibly risky and complex.
The creators of the first commercial artificial retina, Second Sight (NASDAQ: EYES), are testing a new technology that could potentially restore sight to millions more blind patients around the world. The device, called the Orion, differs from existing external technologies designed to restore partial vision, as it is placed directly on the visual cortex of the brain.
The Orion is not the first bionic eye model, as it builds on the technology of the Argus II, its predecessor, which received approval in Europe in 2011 and FDA approval in 2013. Argus II has been instrumental in restoring partial sight to patients with the genetic eye disorder, retinitis pigmentosa. It works by processing and sending images captured by a camera mounted on a pair of glasses to a chip implanted near the retina. The major downside to this device is that it sells for about $150,000 and is only minimally effective.
An estimated 1.5 million people worldwide are affected by retinitis pigmentosa, which causes the gradual loss of sight due to light-sensing photoreceptor cells breaking down in the retina. However, patients with retinitis pigmentosa represent only a small fraction of the 39 million people around the world who are blind.
The new Orion device borrows about 90 percent of the technology behind Argus II but expands upon it to offer a sight restoration option to those patients who are blind from causes other than retinitis pigmentosa. The creators are optimistic that this new device will benefit a much wider audience. They estimate that about 400,000 retinitis pigmentosa patients will be eligible for the device, as well as a percentage of the 6 million people who are blind from other causes, such as: cancer, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and trauma.
Because the Orion device is implanted on the brain instead of on the retina, it involves a much more invasive and riskier procedure. In order to place the array of electrodes on the visual cortex, a small part of the skull must be removed. Therefore, researchers are testing the device out on a small clinical trial of five patients who are completely blind. This trial, which will be conducted at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of California, Los Angeles is just the first step in a long approval process, according to Mark Humayun, a professor of ophthalmology and biomedical engineering who helped develop Argus II, as scientists will need to develop new software and algorithms to convert images into electrical pulses. It is, however, a step in the right direction.