In Brief
  • Sufferers of retinitis pigmentosa (RP) have a new hope to at least partially restore their sight: the Argus II Bionic Eye implant. The UK's NHS is now trialling the device among ten patients to test its effectiveness.
  • The announcement comes amid a flurry of new to cure or treat blindness, or even restore sight—with methods ranging from the use of AI for preventive treatment, to employing sophisticated gene therapies and CRISPR/Cas-9 techniques to repair genetic defects.

The Argus II Bionic Eye

Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a rare genetic disorder that sabotages the retina’s ability to respond to light by disabling rod photoreceptors. The National Eye Institute estimates that one in 4,000 people around the world suffer from the disorder.

In the UK however, people who have lost their sight to RP may soon have hope as the National Health Service (NHS) funds the implantation of a device among ten patients to help treat this form of blindness.

The Argus II Bionic Eye implant works in tandem with a small camera mounted on a pair of glasses that is worn by the patient. Images from the camera are converted into wireless signals via electrodes attached to the retina. These electrodes stimulate the remaining retinal cells, which then transmit information to the brain, effectively restoring some sight to the patient.

How the Argus II retinal implant operates. Credit: BBC
How the Argus II retinal implant operates. Credit: BBC

 

“This highly innovative NHS-funded procedure shows real promise and could change lives,” said Dr Jonathan Fielden, director of specialized commissioning at NHS England.

This is the first time that a treatment for RP has been made available. Half of the patients receiving the implant will be treated at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, while the remaining half will have the procedure at Moorfields Eye Hospital in 2017.

Following the surgeries, the patients will then be closely observed and monitored for a year to determine how well the implant was able to improve their quality of life.

Life-Changing Technology

In the UK, where the program is being implemented, an estimated 16,000 people suffer from the disorder, reports The Guardian. Among those, around 160 to 320 are possibly eligible for a bionic eye procedure. The NHS’s intent to support funding for the first ten patients receiving the implant is anchored in their vision to show viable treatments available to RP sufferers.

Across various fields of science, however, advances in technology and research have shown promise in terms of preventing blindness or restoring sight.

In one study, Google DeepMind, the artificial intelligence (AI) research subsidiary of Alphabet, has developed an AI algorithm that can detect diabetic retinopathy—one of the most common forms of blindness that leads to gradual loss of sight.

Furthermore, a gene therapy intended to cure blindness caused by hereditary retinal dystrophy is already in its final stage of FDA approval and could reach the market as early as 2017. And Salk Institute researchers have used CRISPR/Cas-9—a revolutionary gene-editing technique—to demonstrate how it can be used to partially restore sight in a study conducted in mice with genetic defects.

A Treatment For Blindness? NHS to Install Bionic Eyes in 10 Patients