Imagine how you would feel if gradually you lost your sight, and you knew there was nothing that you could do about it. This is the reality for thousands of people with degenerative eye diseases like macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.
Retinitis pigmentosa is the leading cause of blindness in younger people. The degenerative condition affects around 20,000 Australians and two million people worldwide and strikes in the prime of life often when a person is in their 30s. There are few ways to predict its onset, progression or severity and it can lead to complete blindness within a decade.
Facing off against these fearsome conditions are UNSW biomedical researchers Scientia Professor Nigel Lovell and Professor Gregg Suaning who, in 1997, had an incredible vision: to build a bionic eye.
Despite the advanced stage of the research, continued progress is not a certainty as the bionic eye team urgently requires additional funding to sustain this critical research.
Your donation is essential to build on what has already been achieved and fulfil the promise of the bionic eye. Help us restore vision and give a gift today.
The device has the potential to transform the lives of millions worldwide: up to two million people live with retinitis pigmentosa and up to 196 million have age-related macular degeneration. While there are over a million Australians with macular degeneration, with the ageing population this is expected to almost double by 2030.
All donations, large and small, are gratefully received. Donate online to the Bionic Eye fund or contact UNSW Philanthropy on +61 2 8936 4700 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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By 2009, Lovell and Suaning’s research had progressed so substantially that it was instrumental in establishing Bionic Vision Australia (BVA), a consortium attracting an incredible $42m of Special Research Initiative funding from the Australian Research Council.
BVA made rapid progress. By 2012 the research team implanted their first partially implanted prototype into three patients with retinitis pigmentosa. The 24 electrode array with external electronics allowed users to see spots of light, called phosphenes, and with special cameras and algorithms, they were able to get a sense of distance.
“We were really excited by the first trial because it proved the technology and implementation technique works,” says Suaning.
Encouraged by these results, they joined forces with a team of elite surgical experts and began pre-clinical work that in 2015, culminated in the successful demonstration of the fully implantable UNSW Phoenix99 bionic eye system. This new device represents many world firsts in neural stimulation technologies and should allow for vision that is several times better than previously achieved. Lovell hopes they can implant up to a dozen patients with the device over the next two years.
The bionic vision system consists of a camera, attached to a pair of glasses, which transmits high-frequency radio signals to a microchip implanted in the retina. Electrodes on the implanted chip convert these signals into electrical impulses to stimulate cells in the retina that connect to the optic nerve. These impulses are then passed down along the optic nerve to the vision processing centres of the brain, where they are interpreted as an image.