Bionic eye research at UNSW will benefit from an $8 million funding boost from the Australian Research Council (ARC) over the next year, announced today by Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr.
Researchers from the UNSW Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering are part of the Bionic Vision Australia consortium, which is developing two prototype devices that could help restore sight in people with degenerative eye conditions.
“The extension of funding is a vote of confidence not only in our achievements thus far, but also the promising outcomes we expect in the coming months,” says Associate Professor Gregg Suaning from UNSW.
“It means the remarkable progress we have already made can be completed, and the benefits to the blind community we envisioned can be realised,” he says.
Suaning leads development of the wide-view device, which is suitable for people with retinitis pigmentosa, and is expected to restore sight in patients to a level where they can perceive shapes, differentiate between light and dark, and more independently navigate their environment.
The key feature is an implant with 98 electrodes that 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.
Images captured by a camera are processed by an external unit such as a smart phone and relayed to the implant’s chip. This stimulates the retina, sending electrical signals along the optic nerve into the brain where they are processed and decoded as vision.
The new round of funding will extend the consortium’s research efforts for another year and comes at an important stage in the project’s timeline, as researchers prepare for human trials, which are anticipated to begin in 2014.
“The UNSW research team is currently focused on working with the surgical team to refine the design of the implant to ensure that the device is safe to implant and continues to deliver beneficial information to the visual system of blind recipients,” says UNSW Scientia Professor Nigel Lovell.
Lovell leads the consortium’s Electrical Stimulation Strategy program, which is focused on developing a safe way to stimulate the cells in the retina and to direct electrical impulses to the vision-processing region of the brain.
“The most challenging process has been balancing engineering and surgical constraints, but we’re converging on this balance,” says Lovell. “And we’re encouraged by this announcement.”