Bionic eye 'months away' from service

Fifteen years ago, the bid to create Australia's first bionic eye relied on university researchers pillaging old stereos for parts.

But now, 154 researchers led by the University of NSW's biomedical engineers could be less than a year away from their task to save the vision of degenerative eye disease victims.

In 1997, when the work began, Gregg Suaning and Nigel Lovell were unfunded but dogged researchers ripping old stereos asunder for spare parts in their attempts to build a bionic eye.

Their work today is a $42 million joint project between the university, the Bionics Institute, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, NICTA and the University of Melbourne to restore sight to the blind.

Researchers say they could be months away from offering material hope to people with macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, the leading causes of sight loss in industrial countries.

The technology revolves around an intricate and miniscule implant containing 98 electrodes, which is designed to stimulate nerve cells in the retina.


Images taken by an external camera implanted in glasses worn by the patient would be processed and then relayed via an external wire to a receiver implanted behind the ear, from which signals will be sent to the retina processing chip.

If all goes to plan the retina, having been stimulated with the signals, will send information via ''visual pathways'' to vision processing centres in the brain. Human trials will begin next year.

But they will not be offered to people with any vestiges of sight.

''Because they have so much to lose, people who even see light won't be able to qualify,'' Professor Suaning said.

The human trials of their bionic eye technology will be the first in Australia.

The team began producing the implants last week, and will produce about 25 before they know whether they're ready to proceed further.

It is envisaged the technology, and follow up treatment, will cost more than $60,000 per patient - slightly more than the cochlear implant.

The high cost will mostly be due to the cost of post-surgery treatment, and helping people make sense of the images they are seeing.

It is one of two bionic eye development projects made possible by the allocation of $50 million to bionic eye development.

The other project is the Monash Vision Group.