Pioneering Technologies in Ophthalmology

By Jill | Medical Devices

There are numerous developments in ophthalmology in 2015 but perhaps none is as promising as the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System which deals with retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Retinitis pigmentosa is a degenerative eye disease that causes deterioration in the part of the retina that turns light into vision. Often striking middle-aged victims, RP eventually leads to total blindness. According to the National Eye Institute retinitis pigmentosa affects 1 in every 4,000 Americans. But the new “bionic eye” developed by Second Sight Medical Products promises to return sight to those suffering from RP.

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The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System relies on a small video camera affixed to a pair of sunglasses. The camera sends visual data to an electrode-covered microchip that is implanted in the back of the eye. The electrodes, working in place of the damaged retina, send electronic signals to the optic nerve which transfers them to the brain. The user sees light and shapes in the form of a 600-pixel, black-and-white image.

To fans of Star Trek: Next Generation the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System might seem familiar. Star Trek’s Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, who was blind from birth, was never seen without his thin curved VISOR sunglasses which worked in a similar manner. And the Argus II inventor, ophthalmologist Mark Humayun, often compares his device to the VISOR. However, he was motivated to create the Argus II by watching his grandmother lose her vision to diabetes.

It’s one thing to conceive of a sight device and another to create one. The human eye is incredibly complex; it holds over one million ganglion cells which convert light into sight. Additionally, the Argus II requires implanting an electronic device into the retina, the most delicate part of the eye. And then there’s rapid eye movement, or R.E.M., a series of rapid and random eye movements which could dislodge the device during sleep. Little wonder it took 20 years and $200 million to develop the Argus II, which in February 2013, became the first FDA-approved visual prosthesis for commercial implant. The Argus II sells for $100,000.

Nearly 80 people have had the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System implanted since FDA approval. And Second Sight has received regulatory approvals in Canada and the European Union as well. The Argus II can be used to treat the 1.5 million people suffering from RP worldwide and an additional 2 million with age-related macular degeneration.

In 2014, Second Sight was selected as a gold winner in the science/medical category by Edison Awards for the Argus II. Cleveland Clinic gave the company its Top Medical Innovation of 2014 award. With the development of the Argus II, sight for the blind is a reality, not just a concept from science fiction.