Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Robert Greenberg began studying a rather remarkable notion: That patients who had gone blind could one day see again. After years of research, Greenberg and his colleagues succeeded in developing a novel technology that could do just that. In 1998, Second Sight was founded to market and promote that radical new medical product.
Now in its second iteration, that radical medical product is the Argus prosthetic device. Based on the pioneering work led more than two decades ago by Greenberg, Argus II—the first version was appropriately dubbed Argus I—represents a stunning breakthrough in the long-sought goal of helping the blind to partially regain their ability to see. It’s also won recognition for the company, which is among the participants at the upcoming 2015 IP Champions Awards ceremony.
The Argus II functions as part of a multistep process. First, an implant—an epiretinal prosthesis, to be exact—is surgically inserted in and on the eye of someone who has suffered retinal degradation. This is an important distinction: Second Sight’s technology relies on a healthy optic nerve to transmit data to the visual cortex, meaning it’s currently only helpful for patients whose blindness results from retinal damage.
That implant contains an electronics package that is attached to a silicone band that’s sutured around the eye. An electrode array is then inserted into an incision that’s made in a patient’s eye. Through this method, the array is essentially tacked onto the back of the retina. It functions by emitting an electric current that is strong enough to bypass the retina’s diseased outermost layer and activate its healthy inner layers. (Much like an onion, the retina is composed of multiple layers.)
Yet the surgical device comprises just one part of Second Sight’s technology. The company’s patients must also wear an external device—glasses with a video camera mounted on them—that works in conjunction with the implanted electronics. The glasses’ video processing unit (VPU) processes the images captured by the camera; it then wirelessly sends that translated information back to the implant.
If it all sounds confusing, then try to think of it as a three-step process, explains Duane Tsutsui, Second Sight’s marketing manager. “Essentially, the video camera captures an image; it’s processed by the VPU; and it’s sent back to the implant, where the image that is in front of the camera is lit up onto the retina, which provides a scene that the patient can perceive,” Tsutsui tells Free Enterprise.
While Argus II is not capable of fully restoring a patient’s vision, it does have a quantifiable effect on his or her quality of life, Tsutsui stresses. “For the most part, what patients can see is varying shades of grey, black, and white, and it depends on how much light is reflecting off of that shape,” he says.
“Let’s say you’re in a room with black painted walls, and you’re wearing a white suit. That is something that absolutely the patient will see very clearly. Essentially what the patient will see are areas of contrast, so they’ll be able to see other people, and they’ll especially be able to perceive movement. If they’re walking along the sidewalk and looking toward the street, they’ll see cars going by, and they’ll know which direction the cars are going.”
Argus II users are able to identify doorways, windows, elevator doors, and crosswalks, among many other everyday objects. What’s more, some of Second Sight’s patients are able to distinguish among the important people in their lives, Tsutsui says. “A lot of our patients have also reported that they can now tell the difference between their grandkids because the shapes in front of them are different heights, and they know who’s who based on their heights,” he says.
There are about 100 people around the world currently implanted with the Argus retinal prosthesis. Though Argus is only useful for a relatively small patient population, it could become increasingly ubiquitous in the future, thanks to research Second Sight is actively working on. “Right now, we can only help patients with retinal degeneration in the U.S. That’s because you have to have a healthy optic nerve to transmit the data to the visual cortex for our product to work,” Tsutsui explains.
“A lot of our patients have also reported that they can now tell the difference between their grandkids.”
“However, we are designing an array that can be implanted directly into the visual cortex, which would address virtually all forms of acquired blindness. In fact, we just did our first animal implants last week.”
Yet, for a certain subset of blind patients, Second Sight’s technology will never be an effective treatment. “This technology will never work for a patient born blind because of the fact that people born blind typically have some neural issue that prevents our device from working,” Tsutsui says. “But anyone who had useful vision but went blind, they can receive our cortical stimulator and get back some of his or her vision.”
For those it does help, however, Second Sight’s prosthesis device is life changing—literally. The company’s success stories include a patient who was able to ski again, and one who was able to take up his old hobby of archery. For anyone who’s ever thought that her blindness meant the end of her vision, Second Sight and its proprietary technology are literally showing them a different future.