Tech

From blindness to sight: The Argus II, the so-called bionic eye, successfully completes clinical trials

Biomechanical augmentation was a concept once reserved for comic books and science fiction movies, but research is progressing toward a future where artificial organs are the norm, not the exception. Perhaps no project has shown as much promise as Second Sight's artificial iris, a product seemingly on the cusp of commercialization. Earlier this month, a three-year clinical trial proved the Argus II, the company's so-called bionic eye, effective in treating certain vision disorders.

The results of the study, published in the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, showed the Argus II "significantly [improved] visual function and quality of life" for people with the degenerative eye condition retinitis pigmentosa, a disease which ultimately results in blindness.

The Argus II, which assembled looks like a bulky pair of sunglasses, captures images with a tiny camera and sends them to a handheld, connected computer. The computer processes the data and transmits it wirelessly to an electronic device implanted on the retina, and the brain interprets the rest.

The clinical trial involved 30 people, aged 28 to 77, experiencing the advanced stages of retinitis pigmentosa. Each was given an implant and instructed to perform simple visual tests by researchers, such as finding and touching a door, or identifying and following a line on the ground. All told, up to 89 percent of the Argus II recipients performed "significantly better."

Furthermore, a subsequent FLORA (Functional Low-vision Observer Rated Assessment) -- an analysis of the implant's impact on participants' lives formed on the basis of interviews -- found that 80 percent of subjects considered the Argus II a benefit. Significantly, none reported adverse vision problems or a decrease in their quality of life.

"This study shows that the Argus II system is a viable treatment option for people profoundly blind due to retinitis pigmentosa -- one that can make a meaningful difference in their lives and provides a benefit that can last over time," said Allen C. Ho, M.D., lead author of the study and director of the clinical retina research unit at Wills Eye Hospital Allen C. Ho. The ultimate hope among researchers is to expand the Argus II's scope of application. "I look forward to future studies with this technology which may make possible expansion of the intended use of the device, including treatment for other diseases and eye injuries," Ho said.

The Argus II will need to get cheaper before that happens -- it runs about $100,000 on average -- but for a device on very tip of cutting edge medicine, it's hardly off to a bad start.