Comment by Peter Roberts.
Medical researchers and a private company developing a surgical implant to restore some sight to the blind have passed an important milestone, with the technology’s future commercialisation now in play.
Bionic Vision, a consortium of Melbourne research groups, and privately funded Bionic Vision Technologies, have successfully restored ‘a sense of vision’ in four patients implanted with the device.
Associate Professor Penny Allen, head of the Vitreoretinal Unit at The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, said the patents were now at home learning how to incorporate the implants into their daily lives.
“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,” said Professor Allen.
The technology involves a camera mounted on a pair of glasses, an external vision processor and an array of electrodes implanted in a pocket behind the retina where it stimulates the optic nerve.
A number of group’ globally have successfully implanted bionic eye vision implants, so-named after Cochlear’s world-leading bionic ear hearing implant.
Other approaches including one involving Sydney researchers involve implanting a device on the surface of the retina.
BVT recently raised $23.6 million from Hong Kong-based State Path Capital and China Huarong International Holdings to accelerate development and clinical studies.
It will be fascinating to see if commercialisation follows the same path as Cochlear, arguable one of the 20th century’s most important medical devices.
Crucial to success is the development of the algorithms that analyse camera signals and convert them into electrical stimuli, plus methodologies to re-teach patients how to see.
Vision is likely to be limited at the moment to seeing large shapes, shade and light, and edges such as the edge of a building or a tram on the street.
It is nowhere near the quality of normal vision, however it gives enough visual cues to enable recipients to navigate simple and known environments.
The big questions remain – whether a commercial device will be manufactured locally as in the case of Cochlear, and whether the Melbourne device is competitive in what is likely to be a crowded market.
Cochlear was incubated within the Nucleus group, at the time was a world leading manufacturer of heart pacemakers, and saw off massive competition from the 3M group
Picture: Bionic Vision Technologies.
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