Department of Energy announces new agreement with USC, national labs and private company

October 14, 2004

Los Angeles, Oct. 14- In an effort to speed the design and development of an artificial retina that might potentially help millions of people blinded by degenerative retinal diseases, U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham has announced that five Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories, along with a California-based private company and three universities, have signed agreements to form a research partnership.

Leading this partnership is the Doheny Eye Institute at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, and a team of retina experts under the direction of Mark Humayun, M.D., Ph.D., who has already completed the first phase of testing of a microelectronic retinal implant he helped invent. The implant has allowed patients to detect when lights are on or off, describe an object's motion, count individual items and even locate objects in their environment.

The prosthesis was developed and manufactured in partnership with Second Sight Medical Products Inc., based in Sylmar, Calif., which is also involved in the DOE partnership.

As part of this agreement, Humayun and the Keck School will receive $6 million over the next three years to conduct their portion of the research.

"The Department of Energy has led the way to many scientific breakthroughs, especially when several scientific disciplines combine to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts," Abraham said in announcing the award. "This project is one such example where biology, physics and engineering have joined forces to deliver a capability that will enable blind people to see. This agreement between the DOE laboratories and the private sector will facilitate transfer of many aspects of DOE technology to a clinical device that has the potential of restoring sight to millions of individuals."

There are 25 million people across the globe, including 6 million Americans, who are blind or severely visually impaired by diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and retinitis pigmentosa (RP), both of which destroy the cells that allow light to be translated into recognizable images. By 2020, that figure is expected to double, creating a virtual vision-loss epidemic.

It is this current need, as well as the future threat, that prompted the DOE to create this artificial retina project.

Under the research agreements, the institutions will jointly share intellectual property rights and royalties from their research. This will speed progress by freeing the researchers to share details of their work with collaborators. In addition, Second Sight will obtain a limited exclusive license for inventions developed during the artificial retina project.

"This collaboration is very unique in that it taps the incredible engineering know-how of the Department of Energy labs, which have some of the most advanced engineering capabilities in the world," Humayun says. "This unique partnership between academia, DOE labs and industry will help facilitate technology transfer from academia as well as DOE labs to make a realizable retinal prosthesis for our blind patients within the near future."

The first implant was able to provide a semblance of sight using only 16 electrodes, which are stimulated by the images captured by a tiny camera mounted on a unique pair of glasses. The implant then sends that signal to the remaining healthy retinal nerve cells, which then pass it on to the optic nerve and, hence, to the brain.

The most current version of the implant, with 60 electrodes, is in preclinical trials. Despite having more electrodes, the implant itself is actually smaller than its predecessor, and requires a less invasive surgery to implant. The hope is to quickly move up to a significantly larger array in the next few years, and then-perhaps within 10 years-to a 1,000-electrode implant that will allow its users to see image details, recognize faces, and read normal-sized type.

The success of the project, all agree, is going to depend on collaboration between the nine different entities involved. The DOE national laboratories, universities and private-sector businesses that comprise the new project are:
  • USC's Doheny Eye Institute at the Keck School of Medicine, which is co-leading the effort and performing clinical testing of the implants;
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the program's other co-leader; Oak Ridge is working on developing advanced electrodes and fabrication techniques, and studying long-term stability of the implanted device;
  • Argonne National Laboratory, which is collaborating with Second Sight to use patented ultrananocrystalline diamond technology to make the implant biocompatible with the surrounding ocular tissue;
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is developing a thin, flexible implant that can conform to the curved shape of the retina;
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is developing advanced optical imaging techniques which provide a better understanding of how the prosthesis works, by mapping the interaction between brain and retina;
  • Sandia National Laboratories, where researchers are developing advanced electrodes using MEMS (microelectronic mechanical systems) research;
  • North Carolina State University, which is performing electrical and thermal modeling of the device to determine how much energy can be used to stimulate the remaining retinal cells
  • University of California, Santa Cruz, which will work on wireless communication technology to provide a strong link between the camera and the implant;
  • Second Sight, which created the prototype design currently in testing and will integrate DOE technology into product designs that will eventually move on to clinical trials.

    "For the Doheny Eye Institute to be the lead institution in organizing and directing research as it relates to the DOE Artificial Retina Project is both important and historical," Humayun says. "This leadership role will allow USC and Doheny researchers to realize our aggressive goal of building a retinal prosthesis within the next five years that will allow patients mobility, as well as goals for the near future, which include reading and face recognition vision. We're really on our way now."

    University of Southern California

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