July 12, 2004.
By Evan Pondel,
Los Angeles Daily News.
SYLMAR -- It's been nearly a year since Constance Schoeman saw the light.
Blind for more than a decade, she remembers a soft glow that formed in front of her face when scientists switched on the machine.
She could make out objects, faintly. A cup was a foggy blob. A plate was an even bigger foggy blob.
And, then, there was darkness.
That's how light goes for Schoeman, who signed up for clinical trials with a Sylmar-based company that manufactures a seeing device. U.S. regulators recently granted Second Sight the ability to send the device home with patients. Should this next round of trials prove successful, those who thought they would never see again may soon have a second chance.
"I feel good about what I'm doing. And I don't mean to brag, but it makes me feel like I'm a contributor to science," said Schoeman, 77, who lives in La Canada Flintridge with her husband.
Schoeman began losing her sight more than four decades ago because of retinis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that eventually eats away the retina. Positioned at the back of the eye, the retina is critical for sight, functioning like film in a camera as it absorbs and processes objects.
Though scientists at Second Sight call their seeing device a retinal prosthesis, the technology vastly differs from the average artificial appendage. The first step for sight requires placing an electrically charged pad the size of a nailhead behind the eye. Surgeons use a backdoor method, tunneling around the ear alongside the head. A wire is then fed through the tunnel, connecting the eye to a battery-charged implant behind the ear.
The process involves cochlear implants, which have long been used to help people hear. Alfred E. Mann, a pioneer in this area, decided to apply the same technology to sight after a blind investor posed the idea. Mann then recruited an expert from the Food and Drug Administration, raised several million dollars and started Second Sight about six years ago.
As many of Mann's creations do, the technology mimics what only nature once dictated. "The device reminds people of Geordi from 'Star Trek.' But this technology is far from science fiction," said Dr. Robert Greenberg, president and chief executive officer of Second Sight.
Greenberg is a dreamer whose affinity for "The Six Million Dollar Man" eventually influenced his career path. Electronics always came easy to this 36-year-old who grew up in Long Island. After devoting undergraduate studies to the field, he decided to apply his circuit wizardry to medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
During his studies there, Greenberg rigged up a device that essentially stimulated the nerve fibers in the eye. The first trial involved an individual who was blind from birth.
"It was a very emotional experience. When we hooked the person up to the rack, it was as if I turned on ESP -- a sense you have never experienced. The patient described it as a retinal storm, and we decided not to continue," said Greenberg, whose passion for vision is influenced by his artist wife.
To this day, those who are blind from birth are usually not the preferred candidates for Second Sight. The area of the brain responsible for sight isn't as developed as it is in those who have seen before.
There are other companies developing implantable retinas. Naperville, Ill.-based Optobionics is in clinical trials with its artificial silicon retina microchip. The device is fully implantable and about as thick as a piece of human hair. The microchip, which converts light into electrical impulses, has been implanted in 10 people who are legally blind.
"One of the patients, Maria, reported she was able to see some colors and fruits," said Katie Annif, a spokeswoman for Optobionics.
The ability to see is the result of a combination of electrical and chemical transmissions. Many of the devices do not cure blindness, but offer enough electrical stimulation to produce some form of sight.
Schoeman said she remembers what certain things look like, although the Second Sight device isn't quite strong enough to make out details. But Schoeman is also wearing the first-generation device, and the newer model will likely produce far more clarity.
Greenberg said the next-generation product is almost fully implantable. And instead of having only 16 electrical contact pads, the newer model will have 50 to 100. That means far more electrical impulses to produce images.
As for Mann, he continues to draw attention from large companies looking for acquisitions. Boston Scientific Corp. announced in early June that it would acquire Mann's Advanced Bionics Corp. for $740 million in cash, providing a greater platform for a variety of devices that treat hearing loss and back pain by stimulating nerve fibers.
The deal calls for Advanced Bionics to receive earn-out payments based on the Valencia company's future performance. Boston Scientific executives expect the move to net more than $1 billion in sales by 2010, tapping into a neurostimulation-device market that is currently valued at about $1.6 billion worldwide.
"There's a lot going on right now. Second Sight is making progress, and we expect to see great things coming out of that company soon," Mann said.
Schoeman is looking forward to the day when other people will benefit from an artificial retina. And though she doesn't expect to see things quite as clearly as she did 50 years ago, "the vision others will have will be just as gratifying," she said.
Evan Pondel, (818) 713-3662.
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