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October 14, 2004

DOE Labs, Universities and Second Sight Partner to Speed Development of "Artificial Retina"

Restoring Sight through Science

CHICAGO, IL  In an effort to speed the design and development of an artificial retina that could potentially help millions of people blinded by retinal diseases, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced today that five Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories, a private company and three universities have signed agreements to form a research partnership. 

The goal of the agreements signed today is to advance the science, technology and clinical success of the field of artificial sight using the facilities and resources of DOE’s national laboratories. 

At today’s announcement in Chicago, the first patient to receive a prototype implant in 2002 described what it was like being able to “see” large letters and to differentiate between a cup, a plate and a knife after being blind for over 50 years. To date, six volunteers have received implants of a micro-electronic device that rests on the surface of the retina to perform the function of normal photoreceptive cells. The artificial retina technology was featured at the department’s “What’s Next Expo,” an event designed to showcase the newest, most innovative, cutting-edge scientific and technological advances to interest young people in pursuing careers in math and science.

“The Department of Energy has led the way to many scientific breakthroughs, especially when several scientific disciplines combined to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts,” Secretary Abraham 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.”

The agreements allow Second Sight Medical Products Inc. based in Sylmar, Calif., to obtain a limited exclusive license for inventions developed during the 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 their collaborators. 

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 first prototype implants contain 16 electrodes.  The next prototype, with 50-100 electrodes, is in preclinical trials.  The project’s “next generation” device would have 1,000 electrodes and hopefully would allow the user to see images.

The Department of Energy-supported project is a collaboration of DOE national laboratories, universities and the private sector:

Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Southern California Doheny Eye Institute are leading the multi-laboratory effort. Oak Ridge’s research includes developing better electrodes and fabrication techniques and studying the long-term stability of the device once it is implanted. 

Argonne National Laboratory scientists, in collaboration with Second Sight, are using their patented ultrananocrystalline diamond technology to make the implant biocompatible with the surrounding ocular tissue. 

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is developing a thin, flexible implant that can conform to the curved shape of the retina.

A Los Alamos National Laboratory team is developing advanced optical imaging techniques.   They are providing a better understanding of how the prosthesis works, by mapping the interaction between the brain and retina. 

Sandia National Laboratories researchers are developing advanced electrodes using MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) research.

The University of Southern California Doheny Eye Institute provides medical direction of the project and performs clinical testing of the implants. 

North Carolina State University is performing electrical and thermal modeling of the device to help determine how much energy can be used to stimulate the remaining non-diseased cells.

University of California, Santa Cruz work includes wireless communication technology to provide the link between the camera and the implant. 

Second Sight created the prototype device that is currently in testing.  Second Sight will integrate DOE technology into product designs that will eventually move on to clinical trials.

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.   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 plans to fund the artificial retina project at $20 million over the next 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 including clinical imaging in nuclear medicine and imaging atoms at synchrotron light sources.   The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are also supporting the project.

Additional information on the artificial retina project is available at and from the participating institutions’ press offices:

  • Argonne National Lab, Catherine Foster, 630/252-5580
  • Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Anne Stark, 925/422-9799
  • Los Alamos National Lab, Todd Hanson, 505/665-2085
  • North Carolina State University, Mick Kulikowski, 919/515-3470
  • Oak Ridge National Lab, Ron Walli, 865/576-0226
  • Sandia National Laboratories, Neal Singer, 505/845-7078
  • Second Sight, Robert Greenberg, 818/833-5000
  • University of California, Santa Cruz, Tim Stephens, 831/459-4352
  • University of Southern California, Jon Weiner, 323/442-2830

Media contact:  Jeff Sherwood, 202/586-5806

Number: R-04-326

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