EYE implants developed by scientists have enabled nine blind people to see again and offered hope to millions more around the world.
A microchip inserted into the back of the eyeball restored functional vision to patients born with the common hereditary condition retinitis pigmentosa (RP), the cause of permanent blindness in 15 million people worldwide.
The 3mm chip, which has been used in clinical trials since 2005, was inserted below the surface of the retina by scientists, where it electrically stimulated the optical tissues and generated a form of artificial sight.
In the latest trials conducted in Germany, most of the patients were able to recognise facial expressions, distinguish objects such as fruit on a table, read road signs and recognise letters to form words.
Two patients experienced sight sharpness surpassing the visual resolution achieved in earlier human trials on 27 patients.
Professor Eberhart Zrenner, of University Eye Hospital Tubingen in Germany, said the results of the first human clinical trial exceeded the scientists’ expectations, and that the second trial’s results had been extremely encouraging.
He said: “This research provides additional evidence that our sub-retinal implant technology can help some patients with retinal degeneration regain functional vision and does so in a way that does not require externally visible equipment.”
RP is a disease mainly affecting the retina, symptoms of the disease often first appear in childhood, but severe vision problems do not usually develop until early adulthood.
Although the disease is incurable, the nerves of the retina remain functional and receptive. If these nerves can be successfully stimulated, a degree of vision might be recovered.
Walter-G Wrobel, chief executive of Retina Implant AG in Germany which manufactured the implant, said: “We are continually humbled by the 36 patients we’ve implanted so far and their willingness to participate in this ground-breaking research.”
David Head, chief executive of RP Fighting Blindness, welcomed the discovery as an innovation in the fight against blindness.
He said: “As a leading relevant patient organisation in the UK we have been watching Retina Implant AG’s research with great interest.
“The results published show definite promise to one day restore functional vision to patients with advanced-stage retinitis pigmentosa.”