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Retina surgeons at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center have performed the first – and second – surgeries in the United States to implant an artificial retina, or “bionic eye,” since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the device last year.

Drs. Thiran Jayasundera and David N. Zacks performed the surgery for a patient with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative and blinding eye disease.

This followed the first commercial implant of Argus II, which took place in Italy in 2011. There have been 18 procedures in Germany and 12 in Italy since then. Dr. Stanislao Rizzo, director of the University Hospital Ophthalmic Department in Pisa, Italy, who first implanted the Argus II, provided guidance throughout the procedure. Rizzo has performed the largest number of implants on patients worldwide since 2011.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System was developed by Second Sight Medical Products Inc., of Sylmar, Calif., and is the first and only retinal prosthesis approved in the U.S. The University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center was selected by Second Sight as a “Center of Excellence” for its cutting-edge approach to medicine and commitment to patient care. It’s one of 12 centers in the U.S. that are currently accepting consultations for patients.

“This is a tremendous milestone, not only for Kellogg Eye Center and Second Sight, but also for those affected by RP in the United States,” said Dr. Robert Greenberg, president and CEO of Second Sight. “We are pleased to have the first implants take place at such a nationally recognized and respected institution. This device is going to positively impact the lives of those suffering from RP by providing renewed visual capabilities, which can help improve daily functioning and activities.”

“We are pleased with both patients’ progress at this point, and we are hopeful and optimistic that the artificial retina will enable them to see objects, light and people standing before them,” said Jayasundera, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the U-M Medical School.

Linda Schulte, who received the first implant, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in her 40s. Now 65, Schulte hopes the device will allow her to travel and “enjoy life a little more.” But most importantly, she wants to see her 10 grandchildren, to the extent that she can.

“I understand that I will not have 20/20 vision and that I won’t be able to distinguish faces. But at least I will be able to know that my grandchildren are running across the yard or walking into my house. That would be a miracle to me,” she said.

The retinal prosthesis is not activated until the patient has sufficiently recovered from surgery. The patient then undergoes training to adapt to the new vision, a process that can take from one to three months.

“Until now, we’ve had no treatment options to offer our patients with advanced RP,” Jayasundera said. “We hope the implant will bring light back into our patients’ worlds, allowing them to detect shapes of people and objects in their environment. It could allow them to gain more independence and the ability to go about their daily lives with more confidence.”

Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited retinal degenerative disease that causes slow but progressive vision loss due to a gradual loss of the light-sensitive retinal cells called rods and cones. Patients with RP experience gradual loss of side vision and night vision, and later of central vision, which can result in near blindness.

The Argus II System

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is surgically implanted in one eye and works by converting video images captured by a miniature camera housed in the patient’s glasses into a series of small electrical pulses that are transmitted wirelessly to an array of electrodes on the surface of the retina.

These pulses are intended to stimulate the retina’s remaining cells, resulting in the corresponding perception of patterns of light in the brain. The patient then learns to interpret these visual patterns, thereby regaining some visual function.