Bionic eye tech aims to help blind people see

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Once upon a time, there were some unusual Australian sheep, with exceptionally sharp eyesight.

The small flock spent three months last year with bionic, artificial eyes, surgically implanted behind their retinas.

These sheep were part of a medical trial that aims to ultimately help people with some types of blindness to be able to see.

The specific aim of the sheep test was to see if the device in question, the Phoenix 99, caused any adverse physical reactions – the bionic eye was said to have been well tolerated by the animals. As a result, an application has now been made to start testing in human patients.

The project is being carried out by a team of researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales.

The Phoenix 99 is wirelessly linked to a small camera attached to a pair of glasses, it works by stimulating a user’s retina. The retina is the layer of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye that converts light into electrical messages, sent to the brain via the optic nerve, and processed into what we see.

The Phoenix 99 device is able to bypass faulty retina cells, and ‘trigger’ those that are still able to work.

“There were no unexpected reactions from the tissue around the device, and we expect it could remain in place for many years,” says Samuel Eggenberger, a biomedical engineer at the University of Sydney’s School of Biomedical Engineering.

At least 2.2 billion people around the world suffer from some form of impaired vision, ranging from a mild level to total blindness, according to the World Health Organisation. The WHO says the financial impact of this, in terms of loss of productivity, is more than $25bn (£19bn) per year for the global economy.

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The use of bionic eye systems to help treat blindness is an industry still very much in its infancy, but with technological developments advancing quickly, one report expects the sector to be worth $426m by 2028.

“Advancements in technology have been redefining ophthalmology,” says Dr. Diane Hilal-Campo, a New Jersey-based ophthalmologist. “Innovations have not only made diagnosis easier and more precise but have transformed patient care for the better.”

As an example, she points to a bionic eye that has already been fitted to more than 350 people around the world – Argus II from US firm, Second Sight.

This works in the same way as the Phoenix 99, and the initial version was first fitted to a patient as far back as 2011.

Second Sight is now continuing work on a new product called Orion. This is a brain implant, and the company says that it has the goal that Orion will be able to treat nearly all forms of profound blindness. The project is still in the early clinical phases.

Other bionic eyes systems include the Prima device, which has been developed by French firm Pixium Vision; and Bionic Eye System by another Australian team, Bionic Vision Technologies.

Dr. Hilal-Campo says that one current problem is the high cost of the technology, which makes them “accessible to very few people”. The Argus II, for example, costs about $150,000.

She adds that as the tech is still in its infancy the results are not yet anywhere near perfect. “I have no doubt that the technology has transformed the lives of patients who have been lucky enough to receive these implants,” says Dr. Hilal-Campo. “Currently, however, the technology is limited, only allowing for the perception of light and shadows, and, to some extent, shapes.

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