Bionic eye returns some sight to isle patient

Honolulu Star Advertiser | By Rob Shikina | December 20, 2015

Hawaii’s first patient to receive a bionic eye is able to discern between light and dark objects and can tell if someone walks into a room, her doctor says.

The patient, a 73-year-old legally blind and deaf Honolulu woman, is also the first patient in the Asia-Pacific region to receive the eye implant and one of only about 20 in the U.S. to receive the prosthesis, said Hawaii ophthalmologist Dr. Gregg Kokame, who installed the device in the woman’s eye.

Kokame said the implant, an Argus II Retinal Prosthesis, is the only federally approved technology that can restore limited vision and took its inventor, Mark Humayun of the University of Southern California Eye Institute, 27 years to develop.

It can be used only for those with the congenital disease retinitis pigmentosa, which gradually destroys light receptors in the retina, causing a slow loss in vision, first with peripheral and night vision, then all vision.

About 100,000 people in the U.S. have the disease, according to the nonprofit Foundation Fighting Blindness. Only about 5 percent of those are eligible for the treatment because they must be close to completely blind, Kokame said in a telephone interview.

The implant, which is about the size of an aspirin, is implanted on the retina, in the back of the eye, and works by releasing electrical impulses from 60 electrodes. The impulses stimulate the retina, which sends the information through the optic nerve back to the brain.

A camera attached to a pair of sunglasses worn by the user captures the images and relays them to the implanted device wirelessly. The sunglasses also charge the implant wirelessly.

The woman, whose family requested anonymity, received the implant March 24 at the Eye Surgery Center of Hawaii at Dole Cannery. Kokame said the woman, who weaves handicraft gifts such as blankets and key chains, can now tell a light-colored woven item from a dark-colored one.

“It opened up a new world for her,” Kokame said. “It’s an artificial vision. It’s not real vision, but it’s the type of vision that she can utilize to see if someone walks into a room.

“We don’t exactly know what she’s seeing, but we know that she’s able to interpret the images that she is seeing in a way that’s useful,” he said. “She’s always smiling because she’s able to utilize the vision.”

He said the woman’s family has hung lights around doorways in the hallway, and she can tell when she is next to a door and can follow a path of lights.

He said the woman will further develop her abilities as she trains with the technology, basically by scanning back and forth with her head to understand the images being sent to her brain.

Kokame said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the technology about two years ago, and it could be years before it is approved in Asia. He hopes to help those in Asia who cannot receive the treatment in their own countries.

The procedure costs about $225,000. Kokame said there have been 60 to 70 implants in Europe and the U.S., and the longest the device has been used is about 10 years.