Electronics shine new light on treatment for retinal disease

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The first UK clinical trials of an electronic eye implant designed to restore the sight of blind people have proved successful and “exceeded expectations”, scientists have revealed.

Eye experts developing the pioneering new technology said the first group of British patients to receive the electronic microchips were regaining “useful vision” just weeks after undergoing surgery.

The news will offer fresh hope for people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa (RP) – a genetic eye condition that leads to incurable blindness.

Retina Implant AG, a leading developer of subretinal implants, fitted two RP sufferers with the wireless device in mid-April as part of its UK trial.

The patients were able to detect light immediately after the microchip was activated, while further testing revealed there were also able to locate white objects on a dark background, Retina Implant said.

Ten more people in the UK with the condition will be fitted with the devices as part of the trial, which is being led by Tim Jackson, a consultant retinal surgeon at King’s College Hospital and Robert MacLaren, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Oxford and a consultant retinal surgeon at the Oxford Eye Hospital.

They said: “We are excited to be involved in this pioneering subretinal implant technology and to announce the first patients implanted in the UK were successful. The visual results of these patients exceeded our expectations. This technology represents a genuinely exciting development and is an import step forward in our attempts to offer people with RP a better quality of life.”

The patients will undergo further testing as they adjust to the 3mm by 3mm device in the coming months.

Robin Millar, 60, from London, is one of the patients who has been fitted with the chip along with 1,500 electrodes, which are implanted below the retina.

The music producer said: “Since switching on the device I am able to detect light and distinguish the outlines of certain objects which is an encouraging sign.

“I have even dreamt in very vivid colour for the first time in 25 years so a part of my brain which had gone to sleep has woken up!

“I feel this is incredibly promising for future research and I’m happy to be contributing to this legacy.”

The subretinal implant technology has been in clinical trials for more than six years with testing also taking place in Germany. Developers are planning to seek commercial approval following the latest phase of testing.

David Head, head of charity RP Fighting Blindness, said: “The completion of the first two implants in the UK is very significant and brings hope to people who have lost their sight as a result of RP.”

RP is an inherited condition which gets worse over time and affects one in every 3,000-4,000 people in Europe.

Among those toasting the latest significant breakthrough in the search for a cure for common causes of blindness is journalist Joe Churcher, who is one of the estimated 25,000 people in the UK who suffer retinitis pigmentosa and is an active fundraiser.

He said: “Retinitis Pigmentosa sufferers’ dreams may not all have come true yet – but at least some of them are now in colour.

“Kaleidoscopic night-time experiences are one of the interesting effects experienced by the first recipients’ of the so-called ‘bionic eye’ retinal implants.

“While still extremely rudimentary, the more significant result is the restoration of some useful vision to patients robbed of their sight by a genetic quirk.”

This summer, Mr Churcher will be part of a 20-strong group - some of whom have nothing but pinpricks of remaining vision – taking on the tough challenge of walking coast to coast from Cumbria to North Yorkshire – 200 miles in 10 days.