Blind people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa could have their sight restored using a bionic eye, researchers have revealed.
The microchip implant, which has been developed by German technology company Retina Implant AG, is inserted under the retina. It works like a digital film camera, with a 3mm sq array of 1,500 light sensors sending pulsed electrical signals to adjoining nerve cells, which relay the messages to the brain.
Recruitment has begun for the first UK trial of the device following a successful pilot in Germany, where it enabled three blind patients to read letters and recognise objects for the first time since losing their sight.
Results from the trial, published last month in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, showed that within days of surgery, the two men and one woman were able to locate a cup, saucer and different geometric shapes placed on a table.
One of the patients, a 46-year-old man from Finland, was able to walk around a room with confidence, tell the time from a clock, distinguish between subtle shades of grey and could even read his name.
Surgeons at King’s College Hospital, London, are now preparing for a follow-up study in the UK. They hope to select six patients for the trial, due to get under way in March. Another six patients will be treated at Oxford Eye Hospital.
Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited disorder which gradually destroys the retina. One in 3,000 people in the UK have the disease, some of whom can be blind by the age of 30.
Surgeon Tim Jackson, who will head the King’s College team, said: “We are delighted to be involved in testing this pioneering technology. The results demonstrated by the German team are genuinely impressive, and they represent an important step towards artificial vision that could greatly enhance the quality of life for people with an incurable, blinding disease.
“It is unquestionably an extremely exciting development.”