The artificial retina approved last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, offering hope of limited vision to thousands who suffer from a special form of blindness, can truly be described as a breakthrough.
A California company, aptly named Second Sight Medical Products Inc., has been given the regulatory green light for a device described as a retinal prosthesis. It treats advanced retinitis pigmentosa, a disease with a strong hereditary component. It damages and then kills cells in the retina, the part of the eye that processes light, ultimately resulting in total blindness.
The device, called Argus II, consists of a miniature video camera attached to a pair of glasses. A small computer translates images into electronic data that are transmitted to some 55 electrodes in a retinal implant the size of an aspirin. It, in turn, sends visual signals on to the brain.
The wearer sees images in black and white, and they're sharpest when there are strong contrasts. Optimally, the user can locate objects and doorways in an unfamiliar room, detect motion, recognize large letters such as those in street signs, identify crosswalks and safely navigate a sidewalk.
The Washington Post says the Argus II was developed with the help of over $100 million in federal grants, something to keep in mind the next time some hotheaded lawmaker talks about taking a meat ax to federal spending.
An estimated 100,000 Americans suffer from retinitis pigmentosa. This development also offers hope for treating macular degeneration, an age-related loss of vision that affects about 2 million.
Like any breakthrough -- one certified by the FDA, moreover -- the Argus II should spur further refinements and innovations and galvanize competing technologies. That -- combined with developments in stem cells, gene therapy and surgical techniques -- offers the hope that one day retinal diseases will be not only treatable but bionically curable.
Dale McFeatters is a senior correspondent for the Scripps Howard News Service.