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US surgeons have implanted an experimental electronic retina into the eyes of three blind people, proving that the operation can be done without the eye automatically rejecting the device.

It will be at least three weeks before the doctors know whether sight has been restored, but they are sure that the operations will be partially successful at least.

Professor Jose Pulido, head of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Illinois, said that the work was the first step towards the "Holy Grail of restoring eyesight to the blind."

"In this study, we are evaluating the safety and feasibility of the ASR by placing a small version of the implant in a side portion of the retina," said Dr Chow, another one of the surgeons involved in the operation.

He continued: "We hope that if the implants are able to stimulate the retina, patients may develop some degree of vision over the location of the implant within the next month."

The surgery required three incisions into the whites of the eye, each about the same diameter as a needle. The retinal fluid was then drained and replaced with a saline solution. This was then injected into a small incision in the back of the retina itself to create what the doctors describe as a sub-retinal space - basically a pouch in the back of the eye big enough to contain the chip. The opening was then sealed by blowing air into the eye. Gross.

The ASR microchip measures about one-tenth of an inch in diameter and one-thousandth of an inch thick. It contains around 3,500 microscopic solar cells that convert light into electrical impulses. It is hoped that these electronic solar cells will replace the damaged photoreceptors - the rods and cones - in the eye.

All three of the patients in the experiment had lost their sight through retinal disease. The implant, even if totally successful, would not help people whose blindness was caused by diabetes, or who had been blind from birth.®

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