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Retinal Implant Restores Sight

Three blind patients have had their sight partly restored after scientists in Germany developed an electronic eye implant. The breakthrough is being hailed as “a significant advance” in retinal prostheses, which could revolutionize the lives of 200,000 people worldwide who (have) retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease.

A subretinal implant inserted under the retina of the three patients has allowed them to see shapes and objects. The best results were achieved with Miikka Terhol, a 46-year-old from Finland, who was able to recognize cutlery and a mug on a table, a clock face, and discern seven different shades of grey. He was also able to move around a room independently and read large letters set out before him.

Professor Eberhart Zrenner of Germany’s University of Tuebingen, and colleagues from the private company Retina Implant AG, initially tested the subretinal chip on 11 people. Some noticed no improvement as their condition was too advanced, but most were able to pick up bright objects. It was only when the chip was placed further behind the retina, in the central macula area, that the best results were achieved with three people--two of them having RP and the other a related inherited condition, choroideraemia.

David Head, chief executive at RP Fighting Blindness, welcomed a new report on Dr. Zrenner’s work and said, “This technology is very exciting ... however, these devices are at an early stage of development as this report notes, and it’s important that we recognize that from early trials to a product that is fully proven and generally available can take a long time.”

Follow-up work on the subretinal implant is due to take place in several centres, including Oxford Eye Hospital and the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology, where a clinical trial of the electronic retina implant is due to take place in 2011-2012.

The research by Professor Zrenner and his colleagues is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B (November 2010).

RP Fighting Blindness:

Reprinted from NB, Issue 60, December 2010.