Those in the US stricken with a particular type of blindness may now be able to get some of their vision back, thanks to the approval of an "artificial retina" by the Food and Drug Administration. The New York Times reports that the device, called the Argus II, was approved to help those afflicted by a specific group of diseases in which the eye's photoreceptor cells deteriorate. The Argus II is made up of two parts. First, a sheet of 60 electrodes are surgically implanted in the eye of the patient. They then wear a special set of glasses and a portable video processor. The glasses contain a camera that captures the imagery around them; the video processor converts those images into pixels, and transmits them back to the electrodes. The patient sees flashes of light, allowing them to view patterns and shapes around them. While most simply see black and white imagery, at least one patient has been able to see color. The device works best in sensing and depicting high-contrast imagery.
Up to 15,000 patients in the US will be eligible
Made by Second Sight Medical Products, the Argus II was approved for use in Europe in 2011 to address a number of different diseases. All told, around 50 different individuals in the US and Europe have tested the device, though the FDA is requiring more testing here in the US before it will allow the Argus II to be used to treat a wider variety of patients. Between 10,000 and 15,000 individuals in the US will likely be eligible to use the product as currently approved. To start, the Argus II is only going to be available through seven hospitals located in California, New York, Texas, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. It will cost $150,000 — and that's not including the surgery and related training — but Second Sight told the Times it was hopeful that insurance would cover the costs.
Dr. Robert Greenberg, the company's president and CEO, told the Times that eventually they would like to implant the electrodes directly into the visual cortex of the brain, bypassing the eye — and any related deficiencies — altogether. "That would allow us to address blindness from all causes," he said.