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With bionic eye, subjects see light
By Kathleen Fackelmann, USA TODAY

Six blind or near-blind people can now see light and in some cases pick out shapes and recognize faces after having an artificial retina inserted into their eyes, according to findings released Wednesday by the co-inventor of the device.

The findings raise hopes that the bionic eye may restore some sight for the estimated 10 million Americans afflicted with blinding eye diseases.

Alan Chow, the ophthalmologist who helped invent the Artificial Silicon Retina, and his colleagues tucked the computer retinas into a slit they made in the eyes of six people blinded by retinitis pigmentosa, a rare progressive degeneration of the retina.

Solar cells in the device's microchip are supposed to replace the function of the retina's light-sensing cells that have been damaged by disease.

Doctors followed the patients for up to 21 months, and preliminary evidence hints that the device is working: All six had substantial improvement in their vision, says Chow, who will present the team's findings Wednesday at the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology meeting in Fort Lauderdale. Researchers reported no signs of infection in the patients.

Chow's company, Optobionics Corp. of Wheaton, Ill., is developing the artificial retina and hopes to have it on the market within five years.

In some cases, people who received the chip could make out light or see dim shapes better. A 59-year-old man saw his own face in the mirror for the first time in 20 years, says co-author Kirk Packo. But instead of the youthful thirtysomething guy he remembered, the man saw his own face lined with wrinkles.

The microchip doesn't restore perfect vision, but it could improve patients' quality of life, says Packo, an ophthalmologist at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. One man in the study who could read no letters at all on the standard eye chart can now read up to 25 letters, he says.

The findings don't prove anything yet, says Gary Abrams, an ophthalmologist with Wayne State University in Detroit. Abrams says patients may be so desperate to see better that they believe their sight has improved even though there hasn't been a marked change.

The artificial retina will need to undergo rigorous testing by independent scientists for years to prove that it can offer sight to the blind, Abrams says.

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Date last modified August 17, 2002