Two blind British men have electronic retinas fitted

 
X-ray of skull showing position of chip with cable running to control unit X-ray of skull showing position of chip with cable running to control unit

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Two British men who have been totally blind for many years have had part of their vision restored after surgery to fit pioneering eye implants.

They are able to perceive light and even some shapes from the devices which were fitted behind the retina.

The men are part of a clinical trial carried out at the Oxford Eye Hospital and King's College Hospital in London.

Professor Robert MacLaren and Mr Tim Jackson are leading the trial.

The two patients, Chris James and Robin Millar, lost their vision due to a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, where the photoreceptor cells at the back of the eye gradually cease to function.

The wafer-thin, 3mm square microelectronic chip has 1,500 light-sensitive pixels which take over the function of the photoreceptor rods and cones.

The surgery involves placing it behind the retina from where a fine cable runs to a control unit under the skin behind the ear.

Start Quote

I am able to make out a curve or a straight line close-up but I find things at distance more difficult. ”

End Quote Chris James Patient
'Magic moment'

When light enters the eye and reaches the chip it stimulates the pixels which sends electronic signals to the optic nerve and from there to the brain.

The chip can have its sensitivity altered via an external power unit which connects to the chip via a magnetic disc on the scalp.

Chris James from Wroughton in Wiltshire said there was a "magic moment" when the implant was switched on for the first time and he saw flashing lights - showing that the device was functional.

"I am able to make out a curve or a straight line close-up but I find things at distance more difficult. It is still early days as I have to learn to interpret the signals being sent to my brain from the chip."

Mr James, a motor-racing enthusiast, says his ambition is to be able to make out the silhouettes of different cars on the race-track.

Prof MacLaren, who fitted the first implant in the UK at the Oxford Eye Hospital, said:

Where the retina implant is placed

"It's the first time that British patients who were completely blind have been able to see something.

"In previous studies of restorative vision involving stem cells and other treatments, patients always had some residual sight.

"Here the patients had no light perception at all but the implant reactivated their retina after more than a decade."

The chip results in the brain receiving flashes of light rather than conventional vision - and it is in black and white rather than colour.

Colour vision

But in an unexpected development, the other British man to have the implant says he is now able to dream in colour for the first time in 25 years. Robin Millar says he is also able to stand in a room and detect light coming through windows.

Prof MacLaren said the results might not seem extraordinary to the sighted, but for a totally blind person to be able to orientate themselves in a room, and perhaps know where the doors and windows are, would be "extremely useful" and of practical help.

In 2010 a Finnish man who received the experimental chip was able to identify letters, but his implant worked only in a laboratory setting, whereas the British men's devices are portable. The implant was developed by a German company, Retina Implant AG.

'Pioneering'

Mr Tim Jackson, eye surgeon at King's College Hospital who has also fitted one of the devices, said:

"This pioneering treatment is at an early stage of development, but it is an important and exciting step forward, and may ultimately lead to a much improved quality of life for people who have lost their sight from retinitis pigmentosa.

"Most of the people who receive this treatment have lost their vision for many years, if not decades. The impact of them seeing again, even if it is not normal vision, can be profound, and at times quite moving."

Both surgeons stress that the chip is not a treatment but part of a clinical trial. Up to a dozen British patients will be fitted with the implants.

Although it could ultimately benefit patients with the most common form of progressive blindness, age-related macular degeneration, they are not eligible for the study at present.

Nor are patients with glaucoma or optic nerve disease.

Nick Astbury, Chair of VISION 2020 UK, a global initiative for the elimination of avoidable blindness said: "This trial will bring hope to two million blind and partially-sighted people living in the UK. It is the first step on a long journey to help people with sight loss to see again and live independently".

 

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  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 37.

    Fantastic story. Congratulations to the doctors, and all best wishes to the patients.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 36.

    gerr65, many countries don't even have the postcode lottery. Every discovery costs, and there is no way in the world that the uk, as a nation, can afford everything for everyone. Our nation is full of scroungers, who live off the backs of others, its a way of life for many. I do hope this new science is given priority, as its such a wonderful gift. Something/someone will lose out , thats life

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 35.

    Incredible news. Can't even imagine how these men feel to be able to see after what you can only imagine is hell.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 34.

    Blind people being able to see, and a paralysed woman walking the London Marathon. The age of the cyborg is coming!

    No bad thing either; advances like these are another step towards the holy grail of clinical immortality. Humanity has come such a long way in just the last 100 years, it's a good time to be alive.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 33.

    Excellent news. Well done to all involved. I'm sure we've all asked the question as to which sense we would least like to lose. Sight always wins for me. I truly hope that this is a pathway to restoring vision to may people.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 32.

    "1,500 light-sensitive pixels"
    If the 'pixel-count' can be increased as quickly as that of digital cameras over the last 5 years thus enabling even better vision(?) - then you ain't seen nothing yet!
    Brilliant.
    Geordie laForge will be old hat!

  • Comment number 31.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +16

    Comment number 30.

    This is sooooo exciting! Thank you to all the researchers and MD's who are making this possible. My 44 girlfriend and mother of 2 young boys is losing her sight to retinitis pigmentosa, and has been for a couple of years. The sadness the person has as they lose their sight is heart breaking. THANK YOU for working on this!

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 29.

    It is wonderful to hear good news. I wish all taking part well.

  • rate this
    -9

    Comment number 28.

    23. Suboran
    "Now it has been done it can be improved and cheapened"
    At a very high cost. Germans are very cleaver at technology and getting a very good price for their product.
    If it fail's don't worry China will buy into it and gain the rewards

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 27.

    All technology takes time to develop. Often the ideas first appear in the science fiction tales of books and movies: though it's not as if the scientists take their cue from them (ice on the moon as in Arthur C Clarke among many examples) research goes into how to solve some things - say sight for the blind ... Though this will help only certain causes of blindness, it's a great little step!

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 26.

    Blindness is one of the most devastating ailments I can possibly imagine. Kudos to these scientists for working hard to immeasurably improve the lives of so many, and let's hope that the treatment becomes cheaper and more universally available in the not too distant future.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 25.

    Bloody good luck to them both, well done and keep up the great work. wish all the trials well.

  • rate this
    +28

    Comment number 24.

    Cheer up people! Why comment on a fantastically feel good story with "Hurrumph, post code lottery" or "Hurrumph, Olympics."
    We're a big country, development has gone into stuff like this, it will get cheaper and be available to more people. Just give them time.
    We're a very grumpy country at the minute! I know we've got problems, but when there's something positive, lets just be positive.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 23.

    Now it has been done it can be improved and cheapened.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 22.

    Absolutely fantastic news!!! I often sit and contemplate certain things such as the complexity of our brains and how we use such a small amount, phsychological aspects of our lives etc and sight is one that really does amase me, how easy it can be taken away and never given back in most cases....well not anymore :) (slight exhageration there as this is still in the trial phase I know but still.)

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 21.

    As someone who works in Ophthalmology and I deal with patients and studies with AMD and Diabetes, this is a great advancement, the limited visual that the patients will see I bet is liberating.

    Will be interesting to see how this progresses, likely colour could be the next step.

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 20.

    Technology always amazes me. As a species we are capable of some truly astonishing things. THIS is how money should be spent, developing ways to improve people's lives. Instead we get things like the Olympics. I know there is also merit in entertainment but imagine the progress if the Olympics money was spent on research like this or on a public transport network or on clean energy? If only.

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 19.

    Ground-breaking first steps!

    Surgeries like this inevitably become cheaper over time, so I look forward to more and more people benefiting from this pioneering surgery in the future.

  • rate this
    -13

    Comment number 18.

    This is very good news but sadly, it will be a postcode lottery as to who will benefit from this treatment.

 

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