Late last year the FDA approved a breakthrough technology that will bring life-changing relief to Americans who suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that almost always leads to legal blindness by the age of 40. More than 100,000 people suffer from this disease. Retinitis pigmentosa evolves slowly, initially impacting the person’s peripheral vision, then night vision and finally, central vision, leading to blindness. The disease destroys the retina’s light-sensitive cells. In January of this year, the first bionic eye was implanted in a patient at the University of Michigan Health Center. Another three procedures have been performed since then, and a 4th is scheduled for this month.
How Does the “Bionic Eye” Work?
The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System—the formal name for the “bionic eye,” is a breakthrough technology consisting of a 60-electrode retinal prosthesis that is surgically implanted into the eye. A tiny video camera is attached to eyeglasses that are worn by the patient. The camera’s images are transmitted to the retinal prosthesis. Then the sensors from the electrode retinal prosthesis is transmitted to the brain, via the optic nerve. This bionic eye will not restore the patient’s vision, but they will be able to distinguish light and dark, see movement and the shapes of objects and people. For patients who are seeing nothing, even to be able to see the outline of shapes and movement is going to bring incredible joy into their lives.
The device, made by Second Sight Medical Products, comes with 20 years of testing and development at a cost of more than $200m. Its approval by the FDA gives Americans suffering from retinitis pigmentosa an option that was already available in Europe. It won’t be cheap, it costs roughly $145,000. Dr. Robert Greenberg, CEO of Second Sight is very enthusiastic about the potential of the Argus System. Being software-based, Dr. Greenberg notes that continuing to improve the software means that the system itself will be continually improved, leading to sharper images and colors.
For now, the FDA approval is limited in scope. It can only be used on less than 4,000 patients per year who are over 25 years of age, have significant onset of the disease and who are willing to participate in all the follow-up and rehabilitation required to be successful with the technology.
Roger Pontz, a Michigan man, is one of the first patients to have the procedure. Legally blind, Pontz has endured the tremendous therapeutic hours, long commutes and brain re-orientation required, and happily reports that he can now see well enough to pick up his cat and see the light created by his grandson’s running through the house. For him, just the basics of being able to maneuver around the house on his own is a blessing beyond description.