Australian researchers are planning to perform patient tests of a fully functional bionic eye next year.
It is hoped that a new fabrication facility for implantable electronics at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) will accelerate the development of the bionic eye.
‘Our primary aim is to complete the first prototypes of the bionic eye so they can be tested in human recipients in 2013,’ said Prof Gregg Suaning from the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering at UNSW.
Suaning leads development of Bionic Vision Australia’s wide-view device, the first of two prototypes aimed at restoring vision in people with degenerative retinal conditions.
The key feature of the device is an implant with 98 electrodes, made of biocompatible materials, which will stimulate surviving nerve cells in the retina — a layer of tissue at the back of the eye that converts light into electrical impulses necessary for sight.
With the bionic eye, images captured by a camera are processed by an external unit, such as a smartphone, then relayed to the implant’s chip. This stimulates the retina, sending electrical signals along the optic nerve into the brain where they are decoded as vision.
The device will enable people at a minimum to better differentiate between light and dark and to navigate around their surroundings more independently, explained Suaning.
In the international race to develop a functional bionic eye, the new facility will give researchers at UNSW an important advantage.
‘The new laboratory gives us the capacity to not only design and test, but to also fabricate novel and intricate bionic implants,’ said Suaning. ‘It will yield enormous potential and promise for future biomedical research and clinical outcomes.’
The upgraded facility will include a clean room and equipment for building complex microscopic components and testing the performance of microelectronics. The facility will also allow the integration of implantable bionics with wearable sensors for telehealth monitoring for managing a wide range of chronic diseases.