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Vision of the future

Device in eye

Photo credit: University of Melbourne

Dr David J. Garrett

University of Melbourne | 2017 | $1,010,000

It is estimated 384,000 Australians are blind or have low vision1

Lasting forever—a diamond electrode implant is the next generation of eye bionics that has the potential to revolutionise the industry.

Dr David Garrett and the team at the University of Melbourne are currently testing a new electrode which will last for the lifetime of the patient without being rejected by the body—it takes a major step forward in how we recreate sight for the blind.

Similar to the Cochlear implant—replacing the damaged inner ear to produce synthetic hearing—the bionic eye is a small (4x4mm) device that uses electricity to stimulate nerves. It is placed inside the eye near the nerve endings responsible for sight to synthetically recreate the sense of vision.

‘All of the communication with that device is done via an infrared laser which fires through the pupil. It gives the device its power and we can modulate that laser in order to give data on the fly,’ Dr Garrett explained.

‘You will have a camera outside recording the world around you. The device translates it and turns it into a stimulation pattern on the retina and you get synthetic vision to the brain.

‘It is revolutionary for a number of reasons. Probably chief among those is the entire device is made out of diamond.’

‘The other big step up for our device over other devices around the world is the number of electrodes and the flexibility of the stimulation patterns we can generate,’ Dr Garrett said.

Current devices have 64 pixels—this enables the user to detect moving light but little else. Many are made from materials that could be rejected by the body or need replacement. Dr Garrett’s device has 256 pixels—where you can see who you’re talking to, and it will last forever.

 

Left image: current vision at 64 pixels. Right image: Bionic Eye vision at 256 pixels

Photo credit: University of Melbourne

‘We are getting a lot more flexibility in what those electrodes can do. We also aim to step up the accuracy of vision we can produce synthetically,’ he said.

The dream of being able to recognise who you are talking to could be a real possibility in the next five years—and presents an amazing commercial opportunity for Australia.

‘We normally see millions of pixels. The next step is 1000 pixels,’ Dr Garrett explained.

‘All the modelling and evidence is that at about 1000 pixels you will recognise the person that you are looking at. This is one of the things the focus groups say they really want to do—even more so than reading. It is a big deal if you can recognise who you are talking to.’

This NHMRC Development Grant provides Dr Garrett and his team the chance to answer a very important question for investors—to prove that those electrodes can produce the level of vision as well as ensure the safety of the device.

This type of grant provides financial support to individual researchers and/or research teams to undertake health and medical research within Australia at the proof-of-concept stage that specifically drives towards a commercial outcome within a foreseeable timeframe.

‘With the nano-fabrication facility we have in Melbourne and the history with the Cochlear implant, we would really like to see this industry in Australia grow as a hub for developing medical devices,’ Dr Garrett said.

‘We see our diamond technology as a game changer for building long-lasting, human ready implants.  Beyond synthetic vision, this technology can be easily modified for other applications—we are hoping it will accelerate the industry as a whole.’

Photo credit: University of Melbourne


1Vision Australia (2016) http://www.visionaustralia.org/learn-more/newly-diagnosed/blindness-and-vision-loss