[AI] Eyes on prize: Visionary device gives hope

Subramani L lsubramani at deccanherald.co.in
Wed Mar 12 04:10:25 EDT 2008

Eyes on prize: Visionary device gives hope
20-year high-tech project aims to restore sight, boost quality of life
By Eva Wolchover
Sunday, March 9, 2008 - Updated 2d 3h ago
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A bionic device the size of a pencil eraser - the labor of 20 years for
a group of visionary Hub doctors and scientists - is offering hope that
some forms
of blindness could be alleviated within a few years.
The Boston Retinal Implant Project, partially based at the V.A. Medical
Center in Jamaica Plain, is one of 22 programs around the world working
to restore
vision to the degenerative blind. Their work: a bio-electronic implant
that delivers images to the brain via a connector the width of a human
"There has been this explosion of interest in this field because
basically the technology in the last 20 years has become miniaturized
enough and sophisticated
enough so that for the first time we can imagine building something
small enough to put in the eye," said Dr. Joseph Rizzo III, who founded
the project
in the late 1980s and co-directs the 36-member team.
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Rizzo, who is director of neuro-ophthalmology at the Massachusetts Eye
and Ear Infirmary, teamed with the V.A., MIT and a handful of other
to create the implantable retinal device. The aim is to restore partial
sight to people who have slowly gone blind because of degenerative
diseases of
the retina.
Roughly 2 million Americans suffer from age-related macular
degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in the
industrialized world. Some 1.6
million people worldwide have retinitis pigmentosa, the leading cause of
inherited blindness in the world.
More than 20 years along, the retinal project is entering its
homestretch. An FDA grant application is in the works and the team's
first human surgeries
will take place in the next few years.
In its simplest terms, the device, which is implanted behind the retina
at the back of the eyeball, works as a light transmitter. Only patients
who were
once able to see and have partially intact optic nerve cells are
eligible for the procedure. People who are blind from birth or suffer
from glaucoma are
Joined by doctors, scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines,
including neurologists and software engineers, Rizzo has co-directed the
since 1988 with John Wyatt, professor in the electrical engineering and
computer science department at MIT.
"Assembling this thing is really hard," said Wyatt, whose team of MIT
researchers and engineers is responsible for designing and testing the
implant. "It
has got to be waterproof, vapor-proof and very tiny. It has got to last
for 10 years or more in the eye."
Saltwater has a corrosive effect on non-biological materials, so the
implant has to be both delicate enough to hug the eye and strong enough
to withstand
"We have one that sits and works now in a dish of saltwater," he said.
"The one to last indefinitely should be ready sometime this summer. We
expect to
plant it in an animal this summer."
The team hired a metal specialist based at EIC Corp. in Norwood to
design a corrosion-proof titanium casing for the implanted chip.
"One of the neat things about our implant is the whole device sits on
the outside of the eye, except for a tiny strip" of plastic, he said.
"So it doesn't
invade the eyeball."
Rizzo said the implant will not restore perfect vision, but will provide
patients with a sense of their surroundings - to detect shapes and
obstacles in
their pathways. Ideally, Rizzo and his team say, patients will someday
be able to recognize objects, faces and general detail.
"The thing is to significantly improve the quality of life for blind
patients," said Rizzo. "What level of achievement that would actually be
is hard to
know. The idea of not having to use the white cane - to walk around,
find the sidewalk, not run into a telephone pole, not walk into a car.
Being able
to navigate safely in an unfamiliar environment, that's the big topic."
He hopes the prosthesis will one day restore a patient's ability to
recognize faces and expressions. But for now, he said, restoring a
patient's confidence
and ability to move about is a major step.

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