Giving Sight to the Blind (Literally)
Second Sight has created a retinal implant, the Argus ii, that restories partial eyesight to people with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that affects an estimated 100,000 people in the U.S. “The last time this was done was in the Bible,” jokes CEO and co-founder Robert Greenberg.
Greenberg says that Second Sight looked to cochlear implants, which artificially stimulate electrodes in the inner ear of deaf patients to create sounds, as inspiration for their product. The Argus II consists of a retinal implant surgically inserted into the patient’s eye and a wireless camera mounted on a pair of glasses worn by the patient. The camera records light and transmits it wirelessly to the implant, which then stimulates electrodes within the eye. The brain interprets the resulting patterns as low-resolution black-and-white images.
Second Sight began selling the Argus II in Europe in late 2011 for $100,000. This February, the 85-person company received FDA approval to launch the Argus II in the United States, which it plans to do this year. But it hasn’t been an easy journey. Second Sight began outpatient testing outside the U.S. in 1992 and has since been refining and formalizing approval for the device. What’s the hold up? Greenberg explains that, as with any surgical implant, surgeons could damage tissue while inserting the device--something the FDA considers when approving medical technologies. But, Greenberg says, inflicting damage to an already-damaged retina doesn’t change much for blind patients, since their vision would remain unchanged. “This risk-to-benefit ratio made it possible for us to get approval," he says. "There is no alternative for these patients."
Greenberg hopes to incorporate color vision in future versions of the Argus ii. Google Glass and other emerging technologies could also influence the product's design, Greenberg says. “Right now, patients are just happy that they can see,” he adds.