Blind World


USC Awarded Biotech Grant.





October 1, 2003.

By Stuart Silverstein,
Times Staff Writer,
Los Angeles Times.




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The National Science Foundation gift will fund a center to develop implants to treat blindness, paralysis and brain damage.


USC has received a $17-million federal grant for a new research center to develop high-tech medical implants to treat such ailments as blindness, paralysis and memory loss.


The National Science Foundation grant, which will be announced by USC officials today, is intended to spur collaboration among the university, government and industry.


USC officials and local economists said the center could help propel the development of biotechnology industries in the Los Angeles area, which has lagged behind San Diego and the Bay Area.


Mark Humayun, a USC professor of ophthalmology and biomedical engineering, will direct the new center. He said its work will involve "where microelectronics meet the body."


The aim, he said, "is to develop new a whole new genre of implantable microelectronic devices to help overcome debilitating conditions."


Medical problems such as blindness, paralysis and brain damage traditionally have been helped by medicine, drugs and laser and conventional types of surgery, he said. The new center will aim to restore those lost functions with a new genre of microelectronic systems.


The facility, which will be known as the Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems center, will focus on the development of three kinds of high-tech prosthetic devices.


One type, called intraocular retinal prosthesis, is being developed to restore sight by taking over the work of cells damaged by degenerative eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration.


Another device under development, a neuromuscular prosthesis sometimes described as a bionic neuron, is intended to restore some of the function of paralyzed muscles through electrical stimulation.


The third device, a cortical prosthesis, is a silicon chip implant intended to combat certain types of brain injuries or diseases. Humayun called that project the most challenging.


The facility will be housed in the Doheny Eye Institute at the USC Health Sciences campus east of downtown. Some research, however, will be conducted on the campuses of two other universities: Caltech and UC Santa Cruz.


USC officials said they expect the $17 million in federal money to represent a first step in financing.


They hope that the National Science Foundation will eventually extend the work into a 10-year, $34-million program, and that private industry will contribute additional money.


As part of its activities, the center will work with local high schools to prepare students for careers in research. It also will work with other local colleges to develop students' job skills in biotechnology. Ross C. DeVol, director of regional studies for the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, said the center's benefits will hinge on how successfully its discoveries are commercialized.


Still, he said, "the NSF putting that kind of money in here shows they have a lot of confidence in the research that's taking place at USC USC and L.A. may have an important anchor for biomedical and biotech industry in the future."






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