In the middle of January, 2017, the University of Florida put itself on the map as one of the 18 centers in the United States authorized to implant the Argus II retinal implant. The Argus II is an epiretinal implant consisting of an inner electrode array placed in the eye where it can stimulate the remaining cells in the retina, effectively taking the place of the rod and cone cells that have died off due to degenerative retinal diseases like retinitis pigmetosa (RP). RP is one type of retinal degenerative disease that results in the gradual loss of vision starting from the periphery and moving gradually inwards. This condition affects approximately every 1 in 4000 people in the US, or given today's population, a total of roughly 81287 Americans. Dr Syed Gibran Khurshid, the UF Health surgeon who performed the intricate procedure on RP patient Walfre Lopez, likens the new, 20-degree field of artificial vision to a "sixth sense", where patients with the device must undergo gradual rehabilitation in order to understand how to interpret the signals their implant is delivering to their brain.
It's a landmark achievement for the University of Florida, and one that will hopefully propel the adoption of these innovative neuroprosthetics forward in the coming years. As it becomes the second institution in Florida (after the University of Miami) approved to perform these procedures, it better positions the state to address the nation's growing problem of macular degeneration. Macular degeneration (MD) is a different, more prevalent retinal degenerative disease that affects currently 2 million people in the US, and this number is projected by the NIH to rise to nearly 3.5 million by 2030. In MD, patients gradually lose their vision staring from the center of their field of view. Because retinal implants typically function by using electrode arrays to stimulate healthy cells where rods and cones have been lost, it stands that this same technology used for RP could be similarly used for MD. Indeed, in an interview with Dr. Robert Greenberg, the Chairman of the Board of Second Sight, he revealed to IDTechEx they have already begun feasibility studies with MD patients in the UK. A contending competitor too, Pixium Vision, has also disclosed that they are actively engaged in discussions with the FDA for similar feasibility studies in patients with age-related MD. Dr. Alexis Karandrea details in her recently published report for IDTechEx Neuroprosthetics 2018-2028: Technologies, Forecasts, Players these and other interesting developments alongside the emerging competitive landscape in this growing subset of neuroprosthetics.
As existing and new players begin to expand and bring their devices into the US market and abroad, the field of bionic eyes as a whole moves from something once only seen in sci-fi movies, to a reality in the clinic and at home. Here, these innovative devices can bring tangible, positive change to the patient's overall quality of life. In an interview with the University of Florida, for example, Lopez's daughter Brianna highlighted his happiness at seeing her face for the first time in his life through the artificial vision made possible with the Argus II: "The first thing I noticed is that he could see the shape of my face and it made him smile."
Top image: Walfre Lopez navigates his kitchen again with the Argus II retinal implant. Photo credit: Jesse S. Jones, University of Florida. Quote credit: Doug Bennett, Science Writer for UF Health News