Seeing is believing: World's first AMD bionic eye implant a triumph

  • Aditya Iyer, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 24, 2015 15:08 IST
This handout picture released by the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust press office on July 22, 2015, shows part of the device fitted to age-related macular degeneration (AMD) sufferer Ray Flynn, at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital in Manchester (AFP Photo)

In a first for ophthalmology, a British man suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD) was able to see again after receiving a bionic eye implant.

Ray Flynn, an 80-year-old Briton, had suffered from the condition, which is the most common cause of blindness in over-50-year-olds, before undergoing surgery at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital.

The octogenarian underwent surgery early in June and his implant was activated on July 1. However, it was on Wednesday that the first substantial tests of the implant were conducted and Flynn was able to discern the outlines of people and objects clearly since first developing AMD two decades ago.

What makes Flynn’s case remarkable is the technology behind his treatment, which provides visually impaired people with a set of patterns they can learn to use to recognise key objects, such as doorframes, or outlines of people.

Prof Paulo Stanga, who lectures on ophthalmology and retinal regeneration at the University of Manchester, performed the groundbreaking surgery over the course of four hours.

"The dry form of AMD is a common, but untreatable condition," Stanga explained. "In the West, it is the leading cause of sight loss."

More than 500,000 people suffer from the condition, which results in the central vision being impaired, in Britain alone.

According to Stanga, Flynn's progress "is truly remarkable...He is seeing the outline of people and objects very effectively."

The technology behind this – which is, in Stanga's opinion, “revolutionary and changes patients' lives” – is the Argus II implant made by US-based Second Sight.

The implant, originally designed for patients with much rarer retinitis pigmentation, works via a special set of glasses and a video processing unit (VPU), which works with antennae implanted into the affected eye. The glasses capture whatever their wearer happens to be looking at, and sends the signals to the VPU, which processes and transmits the image as a series of instructions back to the glasses.

The glasses then convey this set of data wirelessly to the antennae within the eye. This has the effect of bypassing the eye’s damaged photoreceptors and stimulates the retina's remaining cells, resulting in several patterns of light.

Patients like Flynn will never have highly detailed vision (at least with the existing technology) but instead must learn to detect distinct patterns within the set of data transmitted to the antennae.

Flynn is confident of being able to finally able to pursue his two passions in his twilight years: A spot of gardening and watching his beloved Manchester United play.

Stanga is confident this technology can be used to give others like Flynn a new lease on life, and is looking forward to treating more dry AMD patients.

The US-based foundation Fighting Blindness estimates there are more than 30 million people across the world who suffer from dry AMD but this fact has neither daunted Stanga nor shaken his faith in Flynn's recovery. "I think this could be the beginning of a new era for patients with sight loss," he said.

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