December 9, 2003.
By Courtney Walsh,
AUSTRALIA may host clinical trials for a new technology that will allow blind people to read and recognise faces.
World-renowned researcher Dr Mark Humayun plans to install a tiny camera into the eyes of patients whose optical nerve -- the cable that attaches the eye to the brain -- is still intact.
Dr Humayun has successfully completed similar operations on four people using an earlier model, in which the patient wears a pair of glasses fitted with a camera that acts as their eyes.
This model has given the patients, including a 74-year-old man who had been blind for 50 years, the ability to read large letters and recognise a plate, a cup, and a knife.
"He has had an implant for roughly 20 months and he has been doing very well . . . it continues to work, and these are very promising signs," Dr Humayun said.
The ophthalmologist, from the University of Southern California's Doheny Eye Institute, presented his research at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital last week.
He told the Herald Sun Australia was an option to host clinical trials for the new model.
"One could envision that the trials could be done here in Australia," Dr Humayun said.
"Here, that kind of an implant is culturally more accepted . . . it might be a lot easier to do it here than in a lot of other countries, where it (the technology) is not as culturally accepted."
He said trials on the new device would begin within five years.
The tiny camera, which would be covered by a specially developed skin, would allow 1000 points of light to enter the eye.
The first model has 16 points; a more sophisticated second model, expected to be available by 2005, has 100 points.
Dr Humayun said the technology, named the intraocular retinal prosthesis, would be suitable for people with age-related blindness and inherited retinal conditions.
"It's the leading cause of blindness, period, in developed countries such as Australia," he said.
Dr Mark McCombe, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital's ophthalmology alumni chair, said the ground-breaking research was exciting.
"It's the same sort of scale as the bionic ear, if not larger," he said.
"Certainly, if they were going to do a multi-centre trial, I'm sure we would be considered for that."
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