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Wednesday / June 19.
HomeminewsAUD$50million Bionic Eye Funding Approved

AUD$50million Bionic Eye Funding Approved

The hope that Australia will come up with the first truly functional bionic eye has been raised with the AUD$50million funding granted to two local research groups. The bulk of the funding – AUD$42million – has been provided by the Federal Government to the Bionic Vision Australia (BVA) to encourage further bionic eye research. BVA is the umbrella organisation representing the University of Melbourne, University of New South Wales, National ICT Australia, Bionic Ear Institution and Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA). This group has been leading the effort to design and build Australia’s first bionic eye.

The remaining AUD$8 million will be given to Monash University and Victoria’s Alfred Hospital, who will work together to develop a device that is implanted directly on the part of the brain which processes vision signals, the visual cortex.

The Bionic Eye became the talk of the Government’s 2020 summit in April last year. Since then, there has been talk of Australia becoming a developer of the first bionic eye.

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They said ‘let there be light’, and there was light. For 30 years I’ve seen absolutely nothing at all, it’s all been black, but now light is coming through…

Professor Robyn Guymer, Head of the Macular Research Unit at CERA points out that more than 50,000 Australians have severe to profound vision loss caused largely by degeneration or death of the cells in the eye that receive light signals. Prof. Guymer says her group’s bionic eye will work wirelessly, transferring images from a miniature video camera every time the patient blinks to an electrode array on the retina at the back of the eye.

“Clarity and definition of vision will not be equal to normal sight, but the device will allow patients to move around, detect large objects and, in time, read text and recognise some facial features,” she said.

BVA research director, Professor Anthony Burkitt, says the miniature video camera can be embedded in a pair of glasses.

Victorian researchers predict that the implementation of the first Australian Bionic Eye will take place in 2013 at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne.

However, whilst the two Australian groups are aiming to produce Australia’s first bionic eye, other countries have already tested their own versions.

In the U.K. and the U.S., bionic eyes have already been developed and fitted into patients.

In London last year, a bionic eye was put to the test when surgeons in Moorfields Eye Hospital fitted one to a patient, who began to retract light after being completely blind.

“They said ‘let there be light’, and there was light. For 30 years I’ve seen absolutely nothing at all, it’s all been black, but now light is coming through,” said patient Ron (surname withheld).

Ron has hereditary retinitis pigmentosa and was first registered blind in 1979.

In the U.S., the idea of an artificial eye connected to a camera on a pair of glasses was developed by an American company called ‘Second Sight’.

Surgeons used the bionic eye device on 50 to 70 patients suffering vision loss. After using the device the patients were able to detect light, shapes and movement in a room. They were also able to distinguish between objects on a table and all of this without the aid of a guide dog or a stick.

If the bionic eye project proves successful in Australia, it will cure a life problem for many Australians with eyesight impairment, which could easily “restore” their vision again.

Further advancement with this research will ensure Australia takes its place as one of the worlds pioneers in bionic technology.

Professor Rob Shepherd, the Director of the Bionic Ear Institute, which is assisting in the bionic eye technology, says Australia has been a world leader in medical bionics with the development of the bionic ear.

The project’s funding is supported by the Australian Research Council- Research in Bionic Vision Science and Technology Initiative. Researchers from the University of Western Sydney and the Australian National University will also have some input in the bionic eye research program.

Nadia El-Marakby has a BA in Arts from the University of NSW. She is planning a career in publishing and has been doing work experience with mivision. This is her first published work.