Blind World

Shire's goal: Sight for the blind.

July 29, 2003.

Journal Staff
The Ithaca Journal.

ITHACA, New York.

Ithaca engineer Doug Shire has spent the past five years working on a federal project that might help some blind people regain their sight.

Employed by the Veterans Administration, Shire works at Cornell University's Knight Lab, crafting on an electric system that could take the place of light-sensitive cells in the human eye. So far, volunteers who have had the system implanted have been able to see only spots, but scientists hope to help them navigate their homes and neighborhoods and even recognize the faces of people they know.

"I just consider it a real privilege to be working on something that could potentially change the lives of lots of people," Shire said. "Meeting people who have these diseases and seeing how their lives have changed as a result of them has really motivated me to want to help them more, in particular the young people who will be blind shortly and face living the rest of their adult life as a blind person."

Shire is working on a project based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that employs about 25 scientists throughout the country and began in 1988. Within the next five to 10 years, they hope to develop a tiny video camera and a system that sends messages the camera gathers to cells in the eye, taking the place of dead eye cells that used to do that job. Two other Ithaca-based researchers, Marcus Gingrich and Scott Retterer, are also working on the project at Cornell.

"When light comes into your eye, a complicated set of chemical reactions occur that ultimately cause a nerve cell to fire, saying light is coming in in this spot," Shire said.

His system works by translating the video camera's messages into a current that stimulates the eye in a similar way.

People with the blindness-causing conditions macular degeneration and retinis pigmentosa have lost the cells that transmit information to the nerve cells, but their nerve cells are still intact, Shire said.

"The basic premise is that in some kinds of blindness the cells that are sensitive to light die off but the remaining cells in the eye are still able to function," Shire said. "What we're trying to do is to bypass those light-sensitive cells and stimulate the nerves in the retina as if light had caused it to happen."

Shire said macular degeneration affects mainly people over 65 who slowly lose their vision, with peripheral vision going last. Retinis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that affects younger people, usually causing them to go blind before they reach 30. The Veterans Administration was initially interested because macular degeneration affects many World War II veterans who could be more independent if some of their sight was restored, Shire said.

Shire attended graduate school at Cornell during the 1980s and moved to California's Silicon Valley area, returning in 1994 when he got tired of the commuter lifestyle. An electrical engineer by training, he did research on lasers before joining the eye project about five years ago.

The National Science Foundation funds Knight Lab, which allows scientists to use it who might not otherwise have access to the expensive equipment there, Shire said.

"I live here in Ithaca and I saw that this project needed some help and realized I could use the facility here to work with them at a distance," he said of the MIT scientists. "We've collaborated really well."

Copyright 2003 The Ithaca Journal. All rights reserved.

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