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Bionic Eye Enables Man to See for First Time in Decades

Recently, a patient from North Carolina became just the seventh person in the U.S. to have a bionic eye implant activated to help restore his vision.

In a news release from Duke University, the world was introduced to Larry Hester, a patient  suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness. At the time of his diagnosis, little was known about the disease, much less any effective treatments. The disease took Hester's vision by the age of 30, rendering him completely blind. That is, until recently.

On October 1 of this year, Hester received an implant known as the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis Device, one of the world's first bionic eye implants. The device serves as a visual aid that sends light signals to the brain through the use of wireless technology and an implanted sensor. These work in tandem with a camera mounted on special eyeglasses to help restore a low level of vision to Hester.

Photo of Larry Hester and his wife, with Hester wearing the device.

The device incorporates technology developed by researchers at Duke Eye Center, with sophisticated features further enhanced by a company called Second Sight Medical Products. The largest challenge is of course restoring full-functioning eyesight to those with vision impairments, and although this isn't the first step in the that direction, it could serve as another crucial building block toward full eyesight restoration.

Paul Hahn, MD, a retinal surgeon at the Duke Eye Center who has been working with Hester on the implanted device, cautioned that the device still cannot restore normal eyesight, but instead provides a visual aid that can help Hester distinguish a door from a wall, or a crosswalk painted on a roadway.

For decades, the general approach to treating vision impairment has mostly been to slow the progress of vision loss. Now, with emerging technologies doctors can begin to shift treatments from mere vision stabilization, to a true approach to artificial vision restoration treatments.

Hester will continue to return to the Duke Eye Center regularly so doctors can track his progress, and continue training him with the implant as he learns to discern different shapes and objects from the flashes of light generated by the device. Hester's feedback will be crucial to researchers as they look to continue to improve the device and enhance its technology.

"I just wonder how I have been so lucky," Hester said. "Why me? But if I can use what I learn from this to help others with RP, it will not just be for my benefit."

Since the implant was activated, Hester has described "seeing" sights he had long believed would remain as faint memories. A white duck swimming in a pond, the pale moonlight on a clear evening, even his wife's yellow chrysanthemums.

While it still may be quite some time before we're able to fully restore vision to the blind, advancements in the field of bionics are quickly taking restorative vision efforts to never before seen heights. For people like Hester who have spent decades in the dark, the slightest improvements can truly provide a light at the end of the tunnel.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at MD&M Minneapolis, October 29-30, 2014.

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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