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Adviser from Oklahoma sees 'bionic eye' as first step in aiding blindness

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. For a limited number of patients, it could restore some vision.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: March 15, 2013 at 11:15 pm •  Published: March 16, 2013

It's been dubbed the “bionic eye,” a device that can restore some vision for people who are blind and suffer from a rare genetic eye disorder.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is one of the first times that a device that can restore vision for people who are blind has been approved in the U.S.

And now that the technology's been approved, it might be the first of many developments of its kind.

“It's the most complex device that's ever been put inside an eye for any type of eye disease,” said Dr. Sam Dahr, a retina surgeon at Integris Baptist Medical Center. “Not only does the device offer hope for retinal degeneration, but many of the engineering principles and breakthroughs that came with the development of this device may hopefully be extended to other retinal diseases in the future as well.”

Dahr served on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's team that reviewed the Argus II for FDA approval. The Argus II was approved by the FDA in February for treating patients with a disease known as advanced retinitis pigmentosa.

Retinitis pigmentosa is an eye disease in which the retina, the layer of tissue at the back of the eye, is damaged, according to the National Institutes of Health. It is an uncommon condition affecting about 1 in 4,000 people in the United States, according to the NIH.

Symptoms appear in childhood but, generally, severe vision problems don't develop until early adulthood, according to the NIH. People with retinitis pigmentosa can develop decreased vision at night or in low light; loss of peripheral vision, which causes tunnel vision; and the loss of central vision, according to the NIH.

Meaning: some can go blind.

Treatment options have been limited. There's no guarantee that the Argus II will be quickly available in Oklahoma. So far, no hospital or other medical facility has it, Dahr said.

It will be up to the company to determine which hospitals and centers receive the Argus II for patients, Dahr said.

Rather than calling it a “bionic eye,” the Argus II is more accurately described as a prosthetic for the eye, Dahr said.

The Argus II has not yet proved to completely restore a person's vision. Rather, it allows patients who were blind or almost blind to see shapes and patterns. For example, a person with the Argus II might be able to distinguish where a door is or where a couch in their house is. But they likely couldn't read a book with small print.

The way the Argus II works is through a small video camera, a transmitter mounted on a pair of eyeglasses, a video processing unit and an implanted retinal prosthesis, or artificial retina, according to the FDA.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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