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Bio-retina could be boon for the blind

posted 29 Aug 2012, 09:32 by Mpelembe   [ updated 29 Aug 2012, 09:32 ]

An Israeli company has developed an artificial retina designed to restore sight to millions blinded by retinal disease. Called a Bio-Retina, the implant mimics the function of the natural retina when age-related macular degeneration (AMD) or diseases like Retinosis Pigmentosa take hold.

HERZLIYA, ISRAEL  (REUTERS) - Nano Retina's implant has been developed to restore sight to millions worldwide who've been blinded by retinal disease or macular degeneration.

The three-year-old company's managing director Ra'anan Gefen says clinical trials are expected to begin in 2014. He hopes the microchip implant will be commercially available soon after.

"About two thirds of the blind people around the world have been, .it's caused because of diseases that degenerate retina, that the photoreceptor in the back of the eye degenerated and cannot see again. Those people, those diseases advance through adulthood and people just losing the eye sight. We're talking about millions of people affected by this disease and introducing this artificial photoreceptor, artificial retina, will enable them to function again, to see again, to be productive in the society," Gefen said.

The Bio-Retina implant connects to living neurons in the eye of blind patients with normal optic nerves via artificial photoreceptors, which enable data delivery from the eye to the brain.

The nanotech implant includes a photovoltaic cell which is activated by glasses fitted with a laser energy source. The laser light drives the photovoltaic cell to deliver as much as three milliwatts of electricity to the implant which sends images via the optic nerve to the brain, bypassing the patient's damaged retina.

"Our small implant is implanted into the eye and translates the image coming through the eye optic into neural stimulation that's transmitted through the optic nerve to the brain and then it replaces the damaged photoreceptor in the eye and replace it with artificial one. And then those people with damaged retina can see again," Gefen said.

While it is not the first company to develop such technology, Gefen says that Nano Retina's device offers significant improvement in vision compared to other solutions, as well as a short non-invasive implanting procedure and a lower price of $60,000 for both the implant and the surgery.

The 30-minute implantation procedure requires local anaesthesia and a small incision. Functional grayscale vision that allows people to read and write, should be restored almost immediately with a recovery time of one week, Gefen says.

Professor Dov Weinberger, head of the Ophthalmology Department in Rabin Medical Centre near Tel Aviv, who successfully conducted the Bio-Retina implantation surgery in animals, is encouraged by the technology.

"It's a replacement, replacement of part in the eye. Usually in ophthalmology, in eye diseases, we replace many parts - the cornea, the lens, in cataract extraction - but the most important to my opinion, to my idea, the most important part of the eye is the retina. The retina is the film of this camera. And we have to replace it. It's a neurological tissue and as you know neurological tissues are very difficult to replace. This is the first time, or one of the attempts to put new device that functions like, as a retina," Weinberger said.

With $5 million already invested in the company by a range of companies and foundations, including the US-Israel Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, Nano Retina says its halfway towards the $10 million it needs to bring the device to market.

Weinberger says the company's Bio-Retina could revolutionize the lives of millions of blind people.

"It's hope to the society, it's change of life. You know, from blind people, blind patient, that needs help, needs dog, needs the stick, the family and he can do it by himself at the end of the process. Now we are only in the beginning. We just implant the chip, we implant the device and you want to see if there is any electrical stimulus, stimulation, that goes into the brain. know hope is something, we hope that...this is changing of life, changing of everything," he said.

If successful, Gefen says Nano Retina's implant could restore vision to millions of people with degenerative retinal disease, including those suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and Retinosis Pigmentosa.