University surgeons to test first bionic eye

The technology would allow legally blind people to see more light.

Kelsey Christensen

University of Minnesota surgeons are looking for a legally blind person willing to try a new procedure that could allow them to see light.

The University announced last week that the surgeons are going to attach a new prosthetic called Argus II, which helps blind people see contrasted light and motion, to an eye once they find the right candidate.

The two surgeons are hoping to start this month, making them the first in the state to attempt it.

The Argus II is the first artificial retina prosthesis to be approved by the FDA, and it costs about $150,000. The University received the device last fall, said Dr. Sandra Montezuma, one of the surgeons who also works as an assistant professor at the Department of Opthalmology and Visual Neurosciences.

The device works when a patient puts on a pair of shaded glasses with a tiny camera implanted in the frame. The camera captures an image and transmits it to a video processor, Montezuma said, which is a device that acts as a tiny computer and sits at the patient’s side.

The video processor interprets the image, sends it to the patient’s optic nerve and stimulates the retina, and the patient can then make out some of what they’re facing.

Montezuma said it will take four hours to install the electrode array into the patient’s eye.

The device only has to go on one eye to work, Montezuma said. It doesn’t matter which eye because it uses the optic nerve, which connects to both.

However, the images will be mostly pixels of light, she said.

“[Patients] won’t be able to see how normal people see, but if you barely can see light, or never have seen the light, it is a huge improvement to start seeing light patterns,” Montezuma said. “They will see better with high-contrast and motion.”

The chosen candidates will still need to use their walking stick because they won’t be able to make out anything except light, contrast and motion, she said.

The device helps to combat retinitis pigmentosa, which is a mostly genetic disease that damages light-sensitive cells in the retina. Montezuma said the disease is one of the most common causes of genetically induced blindness. About 100,000 Americans are currently living with the disease.

Viable candidates must be age 25 or older and must barely able to see light. They must also have been able to see light before.

After their first patient, the doctors hope to treat 10 to 20 patients each year.

The University’s Fairview Hospital will point the school to its patients who have retintis pigmentosa so it can give them more information on the device, said Wendy Elasky, clinical trial coordinator for the University’s opthalmology department.

But the surgery itself will take place at Fairview Southdale.

Currently, only Medicare covers the surgery, but other insurance companies are considering covering it as well, Elasky said.

Montezuma said the candidates must have a lot of time after the procedure for postsurgical-care appointments.

A clinical kit will be used after the surgery to ensure that the external part of the device fits the patient, said Dr. Erik van Kuijk, a professor and chair of the University’s Department of Opthalmology and Visual Neurosciences.

The surgery has already been successfully performed in Michigan, he said.

“The kind of achievement we are looking for is like sending the men to the moon,” said Montezuma.