If he could go back in time, Second Sight Medical founder and CEO Robert Greenberg wouldn’t tell himself about the tough road ahead in developing the "bionic eye" technology that’s now garnered accolades from around the world. He may not have embarked on the project had he known the hardships he would face in getting the device to market, he told an audience last night at MassDevice.com’s Big 100 West event in Orange County, Calif.
But more than 2 decades ago, when Greenberg was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins observing clinical studies in which a doctor used hand-held wires to stimulate the back of a blind patient’s eye, developing a visual prosthetic seemed relatively straightforward.
"It was a simple engineering project, I thought," Greenberg said during an on-stage interview with MassDevice.com publisher Brian Johnson. "I think being naive was an advantage, that we were able to try something that turned out to be harder, but turned out to be incredibly valuable."
Greenberg and his colleagues faced years of challenges and setbacks that on more than 1 occasion led to frank discussions on whether they’d opted for an impossible task. The company took about 2 years just to develop the retinal implant technology, Greenberg recalled, and the process nearly derailed the whole project.
"There were moments where it looked like it was just too hard," he said. "After about 2 years of trying different electrode shapes and different electrode materials and still seeing the retinas of these animals detach, 2 years into that I remember sitting at a board meeting and we were having a frank discussion of, maybe this is really too hard, maybe we can’t do this."
"It was literally maybe a month after that we found a design that help up and didn’t damage the retina," he added.
FDA regulators in February approved Second Sight’s Argus II for treating blindness due to late stage retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that leaves patients with either bare light perception or none at all. The 1st-of-its-kind device is comprised of an eyeglass-mounted camera and an electrical stimulator implanted in the eye, where digital images are translated into electrical pulses that stimulate the retina to simulate vision.
When asked during his grad school days, he told an academic advisor that the visual prosthetic would take about 1 year and 1 million dollars to develop. 22 years and $200 million dollars later, with FDA approval in hand and commercialization on the near horizon, he’s still optimistic about the next phase of the Argus platform.
The "holy grail" of the technology involves a brain implant that would bypass the optic nerve and directly stimulate the brain’s visual cortex. Since the Argus II involves a back-of-the-eye implant, the optic nerve itself must be capable of sending signals to the brain, excluding the vast majority of patients with blindness. Greenberg estimated that he’d have something ready for clinical testing in the next 2 years.
"If we can take the same implant and put it in the visual part of the brain, now of all of a sudden rather than a hundred or few hundred thousand patients, we can treat 8 million patients who are basically blind from all causes and essentially eliminate blindness," Greenberg said. "That’s been our vision from day 1."