A step closer for the bionic eye

Ross Greenwood speaks to Professor Gregg Suaning who is  Professor of Biomedical Engineering of The University of Sydney , about the progress made on The Phoenix99 bionic eye system,  a fully implantable system which could restore vision to thousands of patients nationwide – almost like Steve Austin in Six Million Dollar Man 

Introduction: A step closer for the bionic eye

Ross Greenwood:  The Six Million Dollar Man, that is what it is. If you think that’s thoroughly far-fetched, think these days about unknown, think about the ears, the cochlear ear implants that we have got that allow people to hear. Where else can that take us to. Well, I can tell you at the University of New South Wales, in its engineering department particularly in its biomedical engineering department. Right now, there is even more breathtaking announcements coming. One of the things that Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man had was he had a new eye, new set of eyes implanted. Guess what that is precisely what the school is working on right now.

The Phoenix 99 bionic eye is fully implantable. It’s a system that could restore vision in patients affected by retinas and also a range of other macular degeneration problems.

It’s massive what it’s doing. Professor Gregg Suaning is one of those people working on this project right now, he’s on the line, many thanks for your time, Greg.

Interview with: Gregg Suaning,  Professor of Biomedical Engineering, University of Sydney

Gregg Suaning: My pleasure.

Ross Greenwood:  Okay. Look I’ve got to say, it all sounds so thoroughly sci-fi and all that stuff out there but this is a real thing. It’s a little bit like what we’ve seen with the cochlear ear implant. The types of responses that the brain can pick up the electrical impulses. If you could do that, there’s no reason why a person who’s suffering vision impairment could not technically have it restored in the future.

Gregg Suaning: That’s exactly right. That’s now, the theme music brought back fond memories of Steve Austin but we’ve been trying for years to try and get to that point. We’re still away off but well, we are getting there. Right now we are working together with the University of New South Wales. I’m actually from the University of Sydney and we’re building up this device and we’ve tested it and everything is working perfectly or gearing up for human studies as soon as we can possibly do it.

Ross Greenwood:  The thing is I understand that $10 million is needed over the next five years to continue developing this system, where would you imagine that $10 million will come from?

Gregg Suaning: Range of places, the government, the people Australia has been very generous with coming forward with some funding for this device and it’ll be a mix of that type of funding and we hope a little bit of philanthropy and perhaps some investment. We’ve got to the point now where this is going to happen and it’s getting ready for a point where people might invest in it.

Ross Greenwood:  The point is also that, say, for example, the cochlear ear implants that are now so well-known and recognized around the world. This could revolutionize life for many people who have, say for example, age-related macular degeneration because even your own studies show it’s predicted that 196 million people worldwide would have that degeneration by 2020 and that’s to say nothing of say, the retinitis pigmentosa which affects around two million people worldwide. It’s a big, big market.

Gregg Suaning: It’s massive, yes. Everyone if we live long enough, we’re all going to get macular degeneration. It’s just a normal process of aging so our population is getting older and we’re finding more and more people get this disease and there really isn’t a great deal of options for them other than a bionic eye.

Ross Greenwood:  A bionic eye is that simply replacing the whole eyeball and putting in a new bionic eye or is it enhancing what’s already there?

Gregg Suaning: It’s enhancing what’s already there. We’re taking what’s left of the eye and there are some operating bits that are still working inside the eye even with people with very advanced retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration and we can tap in to that broken bit and more or less replace it with little electrical impulses and bypass the damaged parts of the eye and go directly to the optic nerve and then off to the brain and the person interprets these little signals as little dots of light. Then we formulate them together like you see the score on a stadium scoreboard and they make out what’s going on in front of them.

Ross Greenwood:  Just incredible. Now, is it a case where they will see through those eyes or is situation as I can see that there would be a camera, which would actually also allow that interpretation to take place?

Gregg Suaning: That’s right, the camera itself is actually replacing the bit of the eye that’s no longer functioning. The film if you will on the back of the eye. We call them the rods and the cones they called photoreceptors and they accept light and they eventually send these signals off to the brain. Now those are broken but all the rest of the superhighway that goes between the eye and the brain is still functional and if we give these little electrical impulses, we can make that happen again but the actual picture that we’re going to convey, we have to use a camera in order to get that because the camera of the eye is no longer working.

Ross Greenwood:  We’ve waited the glasses coming is that simply to hold the camera in place or how does it work for them?

Gregg Suaning: Okay. It is very much like that. We have some set of glasses with a camera on them and there’s a little bit of a computer as well in there. We have to take that image and we have to turn it into instructions for the implant. We go from a picture of the scene in front of you into little dots and those little dots make up that image and we send instructions and power into the end of the system very much in a way that cochlear implants work through the skin but across the skin not with a Frankenstein connector but with these little antennas that in radio signals into the implant and give it all its instructions.

Ross Greenwood:  It’s just such brilliant science. Where does the inspiration for something like this come from for the team that’s been working out between you and SW and also Sydney University?

Gregg Suaning: It was very much inspired by cochlear implants. I think when that was first proposed, everybody thought that’s impossible. Then they’ve just proved that it wasn’t impossible and then when we started proposing that, we can make people see again that was of course impossible. Now, we’re seeing that they might not have been right. We’re making some really great progress now.

Ross Greenwood:  In terms of the time that you believe, you’re saying that $10 million is needed over the next five years when do you imagine that this may become a reality?

Gregg Suaning: Well, we’re ready to go with some prototype devices and as soon as we’ve convinced everybody that needs to be convinced that it’s a safe and the correct thing to do, we’ll be doing clinical trials.

Ross Greenwood:  I’ll tell you, it’s just astonishing to see the way in which this is going and you can only imagine that 10 years ago, this would have been way outside the realm of possibility but then you see the inspiration from one great piece of technology, the cochlear that then inspires other scientists to come up with innovations such as this and again Australian innovation which is equally brilliant as well. Professor Gregg Suaning is the professor of biomedical engineering at the school of aerospace mechanical and mechatronic engineering at Sydney University, cooperating with those in the engineering departments at the University of New South Wales.

Just fabulous to have you on the program tonight Greg and I really appreciate your time.

Gregg Suaning: My pleasure.

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