Restoring vision to the blind is the sort of feat reserved for ancient religious texts and modern science fiction novels. But a company in Germany did just that with an eye implant.
Retina Implant AG is in the process of developing a sub-Retina Implant, designed to be inserted into the eye to treat back-of-the-eye disorders. A first clinical trial showed that the device can enable people suffering from a certain type of macular degeneration to see. The patients had retinitus pigmentosa, an inherited and incurable degenerative condition that causes tunnel vision and often, eventually, complete blindness. Retina Implant estimates that the condition affects about 200,000 people in the U.S. and Europe.
In 1995, the company’s founder and current board member Dr. Eberhart Zrenner said that implanting a chip inside the eye was as far-fetched as using the space shuttle to get to an adjacent star in the Milky Way. But Dr. Zrenner, who is also chairman of the University of Tuebingen Eye Hospital in Germany, didn’t give up. Ten years later the company launched its first human trial. At the time, Retina Implant also began talking to venture capital firms in Europe, but the technology was deemed too risky. It wasn’t until a wealthy businessman, who was personally interested because he had relatives who suffered from vision loss, that the company found significant outside investment.
Retina Implant isn’t the only group working on bionic-eye-like projects, but it seems to have a jump on the competition. Scientists at the Mass. Institute of Technology are also conducting clinical trials with their own version of a sub-Retina Implant, but don’t anticipate implanting their device in humans until 2013. Sylmar, Calif.-based Second Site Medical Products Inc. is developing a device for sufferers of retinitus pigmentosa, but that’s an epi-retinal prosthesis used in conjunction with an external camera attached to eyewear.
Retina Implant’s product sits underneath the retina “directly replacing light receptors lost in macular degeneration,” according to the company. Its most advanced and studied sub-Retina Implant is a 3mm-by-3mm microchip with an array of approximately 1,500 photosensitive electrodes. Electrical power for the device is provided inductively through transmitter coils attached to the skin.
In November, the company published results (PDF) from the first in-human clinical trial that proved the device can work in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a peer-reviewed academic journal. The company’s research with 11 human subjects showed that people who had been completely blind had regained up to two percent of their vision. enough to recognize letters in a newspaper headlines and see utensils before them when seated at a table. That number may seem insignificant — but it’s impossible to calculate the value a blind person places on seeing again, no matter how dimly.
In October, Retina Implant announced that it would increase its manufacturing footprint 25-fold (PDF).
Retina Implant is in the process of commencing a larger, 60-patient clinical trial in several sites across Europe. In this trial, the subjects will have the option to keep the implant permanently. In the first trial, the chips were all removed after four months except for one patient who lobbied the government to allow him to keep the device because his outcomes were so positive. To date, no complications have been reported, according to the company.
Retina Implant believes its device can win CE Mark approval in the European Union as soon as the end of 2011, but it does not have yet have definite plans for entering the U.S. market.
MassDevice recently spoke with Retina Implant CEO Walter Wrobel about the difficulties of developing such a technically advanced medical device and his company’s efforts to prove the device’s effectiveness enough to get it to market.
Click here to listen to the podcast for free, or download an MP3 of the interview by right-clicking on the link.