UCSC researchers join in new partnership to speed development of an 'artificial retina' to restore sight

Monday, October 18, 2004

In an effort to speed the design and development of an artificial retina that could potentially help millions of people blinded by retinal diseases, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced last week that five Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories, a private company, and three universities--including UCSC--have signed agreements to form a research partnership.

The goal of the agreements signed in Chicago on October 14, is to advance the science, technology, and clinical success of the field of artificial sight using the facilities and resources of DOE's national laboratories.

Wentai Liu, professor of electrical engineering, leads UCSC's participation in this project. He traveled to Chicago last week to take part in the signing ceremony.

Liu, who came to UCSC in 2003, has been working for more than a decade on the artificial retina in collaboration with researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) and other institutions. Liu is also campus director of the Center for Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems (BMES), a national Engineering Research Center based at USC. The artificial retina is one of the test-bed projects for BMES.

At the announcement in Chicago, the first patient to receive a prototype implant in 2002 described what it was like being able to "see" large letters and to differentiate between a cup, a plate, and a knife after being blind for over 50 years. To date, six volunteers have received implants of a microelectronic device that rests on the surface of the retina to perform the function of normal photoreceptive cells. The artificial retina technology was featured at DOE's "What's Next Expo," an event designed to showcase the newest, most innovative, cutting-edge scientific and technological advances to interest young people in pursuing careers in math and science.

"The Department of Energy has led the way to many scientific breakthroughs, especially when several scientific disciplines combined to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts," Secretary Abraham said. "This project is one such example where biology, physics, and engineering have joined forces to deliver a capability that will enable blind people to see. This agreement between the DOE laboratories and the private sector will facilitate transfer of many aspects of DOE technology to a clinical device that has the potential of restoring sight to millions of blind individuals."

The agreements allow Second Sight Medical Products Inc. based in Sylmar, Calif., to obtain a limited exclusive license for inventions developed during the artificial retina project. Under the research agreements, the institutions will jointly share intellectual property rights and royalties from their research. This will speed progress by freeing the researchers to share details of their work with their collaborators.

The artificial retina could help those blinded by age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, diseases in which neural wiring from the eye to brain is intact, but the eyes lack photoreceptor activity.

The artificial retina is a device that captures visual signals and sends them to the brain in the form of electrical impulses. The device is a miniature disc that contains an electrode array that can be implanted in the back of the eye to replace a damaged retina. Visual signals are captured by a small video camera in the eyeglasses of the blind person and processed through a microcomputer worn on a belt. The signals are transmitted to the electrode array in the eye. The array stimulates optical nerves, which then carry a signal to the brain. The first prototype implants contain 16 electrodes. The next prototype, with 50 to 100 electrodes, is in preclinical trials. The project's "next-generation" device would have 1,000 electrodes, and researchers hope it would allow the user to see images.

The DOE-supported project is a collaboration of national laboratories, universities, and the private sector. Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Southern California Doheny Eye Institute are leading the multilaboratory effort. Liu's work at UCSC includes wireless communication technology to provide the link between the camera and the implant.

Other partners in the collaboration are Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, North Carolina State University, and Second Sight.

The project's goal is to construct the device, capable of restoring vision, with materials that will last for the lifetime of a blind person. Although images will initially be captured by a camera housed in an eyeglass frame, researchers hope eventually to develop a completely implanted system for this purpose.

The Energy Department's Office of Science plans to fund the artificial retina project at $20 million over the next three years. The department funds the project as part of its medical applications technology program. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are also supporting the project.

Additional information on the artificial retina project is available at science.doe.gov.