Secretary Abraham announces next steps for artificial retina project

November 25, 2002

LOS ANGELES - Today, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham toured the University of Southern California's ophthalmology laboratories at the Doheny Eye Institute and heard from the national research team that hopes to restore vision to millions of people with blindness caused by retinal disorders. As a result of recent breakthroughs in science and engineering technology, Abraham announced that DOE will commit $9 million over three years to augment artificial retina research, including support for a laboratory within the Doheny Eye Institute on the USC campus.

The DOE national labs, partnering with the University of Southern California and North Carolina State University, are designing a micro-electronic device that would be implanted in the eye on the surface of the retina. A microelectrode array would perform the function of normal photoreceptive cells.

"Restoring vision to patients with retinal disorders is the truly marvelous goal of this team of researchers," said Secretary Abraham before an audience on the campus of USC. "That the unique resources of government laboratories are helping to meet this goal is another demonstration of their benefit to the Nation. We are always looking for areas in which our interdisciplinary strengths can be leveraged to revolutionize areas of science, engineering and technology, and to improve quality of life for millions of people."

The artificial retina could help those blinded by age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa where neural wiring from the eye to brain is intact, but the eyes lack photoreceptor activity. The artificial retina is a device that captures visual signals and sends them to the brain in the form of electrical impulses. The device is a miniature disc that contains an electrode array that can be implanted in the back of the eye to replace a damaged retina. Visual signals are captured by a small video camera in the eyeglasses of the blind person and processed through a microcomputer worn on a belt. The signals are transmitted to the electrode array in the eye. The array stimulates optical nerves, which then carry a signal to the brain.

The prototype implants contain 16 electrodes, allowing patients to detect the presence or absence of light. The artificial retina project's "next generation" device would have 1,000 electrodes and hopes to allow the user to see images.

Using the unique resources of the DOE national laboratories in materials sciences, microfabrication, microelectrode construction, photochemistry and computer modeling, the project's goal is to construct the device, capable of restoring vision, with materials that will last for the lifetime of a blind person. Although images will initially be captured by a camera housed in an eyeglass frame, researchers hope eventually to develop a completely implanted system for this purpose.

The Department of Energy-supported project is a collaboration of DOE national laboratories, universities and the private sector. Oak Ridge National Laboratory will manage the project and provide unique facilities for dynamic and static testing of electrode arrays and develop special ocular sensors. Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories are developing advanced electrodes. Los Alamos National Laboratory will provide advanced optical imaging techniques. Working in collaboration with Second Sight LLC, Argonne National Lab is contributing advanced packaging systems and soak testing. North Carolina State University is leading the work on powering and communicating with the array. The USC/Doheny Eye Institute is providing medical direction of the project and clinical work related to implanting of the devices and clinical followup. Second Sight created the prototype device that is currently in testing.

Mark Humayun of the Doheny Eye Institute, a retinal surgeon and a biomedical engineer who has led the project with Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Eli Greenbaum, noted that each institution will play a vital role. "This new project will integrate very well with the support for this field of research by the National Institute of Health's Eye Institute and National Science Foundation. Collectively, the Department of Energy labs have science and engineering that is unparalleled anywhere in the world and it is the use of this expertise that will greatly expedite the development of a retinal implant for the blind," Humayun said.

DOE's effort is focused on developing high-grade microelectrodes and testing their long term biological effects, developing electrode and platform materials that are pliable and will last a lifetime within the eye, constructing a completely wireless device for clinical use and performing the computational modeling of long term retinal stimulation.

The Energy Department's Office of Science is funding the artificial retina project at $9 million over three years. The department funds the project as part of its medical applications technology program. DOE and its predecessor agencies have been in the forefront of imaging sciences from clinical imaging in nuclear medicine to imaging atoms at synchrotron light sources.

Additional information on the artificial retina project is available from the participating institutions' press offices:
-end-
Argonne National Lab, Katie Williams, 630/252-7997
Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Don Johnston, 925/423-4902
Los Alamos National Lab, Jim Danneskiold, 505/667-1640
North Carolina State University, Paul K. Mueller, 919/515-3470
Oak Ridge National Lab, Ron Walli 865/576-0226
Sandia National Laboratories, Neal Singer, 505/845-7078
Second Sight, Patti Jones, 661/775-3990
University of Southern California, Jon Weiner, 323/442-2830

DOE/US Department of Energy

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