A working bionic eye could be an Australian world first by 2020 if action is taken quickly, leading researchers at the University of New South Wales say.

The bionic eye was identified as a key health goal for Australia at the 2020 Summit, held in Canberra on April 19-20, and Professor Nigel Lovell, from the UNSW Australian Vision Prosthesis Group (AVPG), said a functional device can be a reality within 12 years with a concerted national effort.

"There are already some overseas trials of rudimentary bionic eye devices but we have certain designs which are more advanced," said Professor Lovell.

"We need to act now if we want to take advantage of our technical edge."

Over the past 10 years, AVPG researchers have developed a "vision prosthesis", or bionic eye, capable of detecting not only light and dark but also patterns.

Associate Professor Gregg Suaning, also with the AVPG, said the current device consists of an external micro-camera and microprocessor which is mounted on glasses and transmits a signal to an implanted electronic circuit and electrode, connected to the retina at the back of the eye.

The Australian Bionic Eye project is a collaboration between UNSW's AVPG, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, the University of Melbourne based at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, the Bionic Ear Institute and NICTA, Australia's National Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence.

Associate Professor Suaning said the bionic eye project needed a relatively small amount of funding to become a reality and welcomed the support for the project voiced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

"This isn't going to cost anything like a space program," Associate Professor Suaning said.

"We can get it done here in Australia with local funding - we are talking millions, not billions."

Media contacts:Professor Nigel Lovell, UNSW Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, Australian Vision Prosthesis Group: 02 9385 3922Associate Professor Gregg Suaning, UNSW Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, Australian Vision Prosthesis Group: 02 9385 3892

UNSW Media Office: Peter Trute 02 9385 1933, 0410 271 826, p.trute@unsw.edu.au