A collaborative research and development agreement signed between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Second Sight LLC will help bring hope to hundreds of thousands of Americans who are losing their sight to degenerative retinal diseases.
DOE's Argonne National Laboratory, in collaboration with four other national laboratories and two universities, is joining with Second Sight to develop an artificial retina that may restore sight to people who have been blinded by these hereditary diseases.
The new agreement was signed by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, Robert Greenberg of Second Sight, and the principal investigators on the research project from the research institutions involved. The signing ceremony took place at Chicago's Navy Pier. Secretary Abraham is the keynote speaker for the R&D 100 Awards ceremony to be held at Navy Pier this evening.
The research is led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and includes in addition to Argonne Sandia, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories, the Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
“Harnessing the intellectual power of five national laboratories and two other institutions presents a promising way to solve huge problems such as the need for a retinal implant for degenerative eye diseases. However, it brings with it an additional degree of complexity and a need for close communication between key researchers,” says Stephen Ban, director of Argonne's Office of Technology Transfer. “So far we have been very successful in the collaboration needed.”
The research team is developing an artificial retina that would effectively replace the destroyed rods and cones in the eye as the light receptor and optical signal converter. A tiny camera and radio-frequency transmitter on the patient's glasses capture images and transmit the information to the microchip. The image is then transmitted as electrical pulses to the retina via an array of implanted electrodes. From there, the information is processed and passed along to the brain. To date, six volunteers have received implants of a micro-electronic device that rests on the surface of the retina to p erform the function of normal photoreceptive cells.
“The Department of Energy has led the way to many scientific breakthroughs, especially when several scientific disciplines combined to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts,” Secretary Abraham said. “This project is one such example where biology, physics, and engineering have joined forces to deliver a capability that will enable blind people to see. This agreement between the DOE laboratories and the private sector will facilitate transfer of many aspects of DOE technology to a clinical device that has the potential of restoring sight to millions of blind individuals.”
“The artificial retina is very appealing to scientists because it contributes to improving the way of life for people,” said materials scientist Orlando Auciello, Argonne's principal investigator. “Having the ability to see is something too many people take for granted.”
Argonne's role in the project plays a critical part in the success of the electrode implants. Auciello and his colleague John A. Carlisle created a novel application for the patented ultrananocrystalline diamond technology developed at Argonne for the packaging of implantable electronics and as electrode material. The scientific and technological bases of ultrananocrystalline diamond films were developed by a large group of researchers in the Surface Science group in Argonne's Materials Science Division.
According to Auciello, ultrananocrystalline diamond is a material with a unique combination of properties such as the highest hardness of any diamond film demonstrated today, an extremely low friction coefficient and surface adhesion, very high electron emission, chemical inertness, extremely high conductivity when doped with nitrogen, biocompatibility, and surface functionalization. All these properties are the result of the unique microstructure of ultrananocrystalline diamond, characterized by grains that are two to five nanometers in size (a nanometer is about 10,000 times narrower than a human hair).
Artificial retina research began with Mark Humayun, then at Johns Hopkins University. Later, he teamed with Eli Greenbaum at Oak Ridge National Laboratory when he began working at the Intraocular Retinal Prosthesis Group at Doheny Retina Institute at the University of Southern California. After approaching a number of national laboratories and universities, it was arranged that each institute would work on a different aspect of the artificial retina project.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory manages the project and testing the various technologies developed at each institute. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is studying the use of electrode arrays coated in rubber. Los Alamos National Laboratory is developing optical measuring techniques for neural activity. Sandia National Laboratories is developing electrodes made of silicon, using a microfabrication technique which makes small parts of metal, plastic or ceramics, to produce microelectromechanical systems such as tiny actuators and sensors. The University of Southern California implants the electrodes and tests their effectiveness. North Carolina State University in Raleigh is leading the development of the in situ medical electronics.
The Energy Department's Office of Science plans to fund the artificial retina project at $20 million over the next three years. The department funds the project as part of its medical applications technology program. DOE and its predecessor agencies have been in the forefront of imaging sciences including clinical imaging in nuclear medicine and imaging atoms at synchrotron light sources. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are also supporting the project.