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

However today, 154 researchers led by biomedical engineers from the University of NSW could be less than a year away from their goal of saving the vision of degenerative eye disease sufferers.

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 involving the university, the Bionics Institute, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, NICTA and the University of Melbourne.

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

The technology centres on an intricate and minuscule 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 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 to vision processing centres in the brain.

Human trials will begin next year. But people with any vestiges of sight will not be accepted. ''Because they have so much to lose, people who even see light won't be able to qualify,'' Professor Suaning said.

These trials will be the researchers' first in Australia, fulfilling a dream held for decades.

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

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