Skip to main content

‘Bionic eye’ new option for retinitis pigmentosa patients

Jul. 25, 2013, 9:20 AM

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System includes eyeglasses, a camera, transmitter and video processing unit as well as an implanted artificial retina.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center has been chosen as one of 12 sites in the United States to offer the first FDA-approved bionic eye for the treatment of retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

The device, the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, will be available to patients being treated for late-stage RP, an inherited retinal degenerative disease. Although still a few months away, ophthalmologists at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the innovative technology for patients who are functionally blind.

“We are excited to be chosen as one of the centers nationwide to provide this remarkable innovation to our patients,” said Paul Sternberg Jr., M.D., George W. Hale Professor and chair of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and director of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute. “It is an acknowledgement that VEI is one of the premier eye institutes in the country.

“To date, there has been no proven, effective treatment in preventing this disease or slowing it down. For patients who are blind, the ability to regain some vision, functionality and independence is astonishing.”

Retinitis pigmentosa is a retinal degenerative disease characterized by progressive peripheral vision loss and night vision difficulties. It is caused by abnormalities of the rods and cones (receptors of vision) that can lead to peripheral and central vision loss. An estimated 100,000 people are living with RP in the U.S.

Anita Agarwal, M.D., associate professor of Ophthalmology, is looking forward to providing an improved quality of life for patients suffering from end-stage RP.

“It is really amazing to see that patients, who previously were functionally blind, will be able to recognize objects, silhouettes, people and large letters. Patients living with RP have adapted to a non-seeing lifestyle. This is a life-changing treatment.”

Agarwal said researchers have been working toward a treatment for nearly 25 years. And for the past decade, she and her colleagues have been waiting for such a discovery to restore a patient’s ability to perform daily tasks and detect images.

Argus II includes a miniature video camera, a transmitter, eyeglasses, a video processing unit (VPU) and an implanted artificial retina.

The device works by converting video images captured by the camera, which is mounted on the eyeglasses, into a series of small electrical pulses that are then transmitted wirelessly through the VPU to the implanted retina. The pulses conduct messages to the brain and in turn the patient learns how to interpret the visual patterns.

Agarwal stresses that the implanted device will not restore a patient’s vision, rather it will serve as a replacement for the function of the degenerated retinal cells.

The device was created by Second Sight Medical Products Inc.

“With such promising discoveries, patients with other blinding eye diseases may be able to benefit from similar technology,” said Agarwal. “This is a step toward what the future holds.”

In addition to Agarwal, the VEI team, which is made up of physicians, low vision specialists and mobility specialist, includes Milam Brantley, M.D., Stephen Kim, M.D., Jeffrey Sonsino, O.D., Bradley Kehler, O.D., and a vision and a mobility specialist.

Recent Stories from VUMC News and Communications Publications

Vanderbilt Medicine
VUMC Voice