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US science alliance eyes artificial retina

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Nine US research institutions, including five of the Department of Energy's (DOE) laboratories, have forged an alliance in a bid to speed development of an artificial retina.

The deal specifies that all institutions involved in the programme will share any intellectual property rights and resulting royalties. In this way, the architects of the agreement hope to encourage free sharing of information, ideas and results. Second Sight Medical Products, the only private company involved in the alliance, will have a limited, exclusive license for inventions that come out of the work.

Spencer Abraham, US Secretary of Energy, said: "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 blind individuals."

There are several conditions that could be treated with an artificial retina: age related macular degeneration, for example, or retinitis pigmentosa, a condition where the neural connection from the eye to the brain is intact, but the eye's photoreceptors - the rods and cones - are inactive.

The prosthetic retina is a miniature disc with an electrode array that is implanted in the back of the eye. It works much as you would expect: it captures visual signals with a small video camera sited on a pair of glasses, converts them to electrical impulses which then stimulate the optic nerve.

The first prototype contained 16 electrodes, and the detail it could provide the wearer was naturally limited. The first of these was implanted. The recipient had been blind for fifty years, and can now differentiate between a knife and a bowl, for example, and can see large letters. The version currently in pre-clinical trials will have between 50-100 electrodes, but the research agreement is to develop a next generation device that will have 1,000 and would allow the wearer to see actual images. ®

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