Using tiny solar-panel-like cells surgically placed underneath the retina, scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have devised a system that may someday restore sight to people who have lost vision because of certain types of degenerative eye diseases.
This device - a new type of retinal prosthesis - involves a specially designed pair of goggles, which are equipped with a miniature camera and a pocket PC that is designed to process the visual data stream. The resulting images would be displayed on a liquid crystal microdisplay embedded in the goggles, similar to what's used in video goggles for gaming. Unlike the regular video goggles, though, the images would be beamed from the LCD using laser pulses of near-infrared light to a photovoltaic silicon chip - one-third as thin as a strand of hair - implanted beneath the retina.
Electric currents from the photodiodes on the chip would then trigger signals in the retina, which then flow to the brain, enabling a patient to regain vision.
A study, to be published online May 13 in Nature Photonics, discusses how scientists tested the photovoltaic stimulation using the prosthetic device's diode arrays in rat retinas in vitro and how they elicited electric responses, which are widely accepted indicators of visual activity, from retinal cells . The scientists are now testing the system in live rats, taking both physiological and behavioral measurements, and are hoping to find a sponsor to support tests in humans.
"It works like the solar panels on your roof, converting light into electric current," said Daniel Palanker, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology and one of the paper's senior authors. "But instead of the current flowing to your refrigerator, it flows into your retina." Palanker is also a member of the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory at Stanford and of the interdisciplinary Stanford research program, Bio-X. The study's other senior author is Alexander Sher, PhD, of the Santa Cruz Institute of Particle Physics at UC Santa Cruz; its co-first authors are Keith Mathieson, PhD, a visiting scholar in Palanker's lab, and James Loudin, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar. Palanker and Loudin jointly conceived and designed the prosthesis system and the photovoltaic arrays.
There are several other retinal prostheses being developed, and at least two of them are in clinical trials. A device made by the Los Angeles-based company Second Sight was approved in April for use in Europe, and another prosthesis-maker, a German company called Retina Implant AG, announced earlier this month results from its clinical testing in Europe.
Unlike these other devices - which require coils, cables or antennas inside the eye to deliver power and information to the retinal implant - the Stanford device uses near-infrared light to transmit images, thereby avoiding any need for wires and cables, and making the device thin and easily implantable.
"The current implants are very bulky, and the surgery to place the intraocular wiring for receiving, processing and power is difficult," Palanker said. The device developed by his team, he noted, has virtually all of the hardware incorporated externally into the goggles. "The surgeon needs only to create a small pocket beneath the retina and then slip the photovoltaic cells inside it." What's more, one can tile these photovoltaic cells in larger numbers inside the eye to provide a wider field of view than the other systems can offer, he added.
Stanford University holds patents on two technologies used in the system, and Palanker and colleagues would receive royalties from the licensing of these patents.
The proposed prosthesis is intended to help people suffering from retinal degenerative diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. The former is the foremost cause of vision loss in North America, and the latter causes an estimated 1.5 million people worldwide to lose sight, according to the nonprofit group Foundation Fighting Blindness. In these diseases, the retina's photoreceptor cells slowly degenerate, ultimately leading to blindness. But the inner retinal neurons that normally transmit signals from the photoreceptors to the brain are largely unscathed. Retinal prostheses are based on the idea that there are other ways to stimulate those neurons.
The Stanford device uses near-infrared light, which has longer wavelength than normal visible light. It's necessary to use such an approach because people blinded by retinal degenerative diseases still have photoreceptor cells, which continue to be sensitive to visible light. "To make this work, we have to deliver a lot more light than normal vision would require," said Palanker. "And if we used visible light, it would be painfully bright." Near-infrared light isn't visible to the naked eye, though it is "visible" to the diodes that are implanted as part of this prosthetic system, he said.