Blind World

Retinitis Pigmentosa.
Vision of the Future.

November 23, 2004.

By Paula Francis, Anchor,
KLAS-TV, Las Vegas

Just hours from Las Vegas, Salt Lake City is home to one of the premier eye research centers in the world. And, it has a surprising connection to our own city.

The John Moran Eye Center has received a grant from the Stephen and Elaine Wynn Foundation. The builder of Las Vegas resorts helps fund research into eye disease. One day, the research may lead to a cure for the blinding disease, retinitis pigmentosa.

Salt Lake City resident, Becky Andrews was diagnosed twenty years ago. The disease went un-noticed throughout her childhood:

Andrews says, "I remember at girls camp, tripping over things to the point where it was pretty obvious and got the clumsy award and everybody laughed. Couldn't figure out why I was tripping over so many things. So it helped a lot to put a name to it and understand why some things were harder."

Funding from the Wynn foundation will help to evaluate safety and other issues of what's being called cellular rescue. The groundbreaking research indicates that vision can be preserved in rats born with vision loss, similar to RP in humans.

Research Ophthalmologist, Dr. Paul Bernstein says they use cells that secrete growth factors that help to nurture and preserve the function of the retina.

A water maze provides an ingenious way to determine if the animal's vision actually improves. If they can see, they can see the bars and they know that's the right way to go. And they can get on a platform and get out of the water.

This research may also be useful in finding new ways to treat age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.

The Utah center is also involved in research to create artificial vision.

The extraordinary research being conducted here may someday restore eyesight to the blind. The notion of artificial vision is more than science fiction for Professor Richard Normann. His work in bio-engineering here at the Moran Eye Center is focused on neuro-prosthetics, also called bionics.

Professor Normann's research team has developed the electrode array. This tiny silicon chip contains one hundred electrodes. When it's implanted in the brain of a blind person, it will provide a receptor for electronic images sent from a pair of special TV eye-glasses. The information will be sent to the part of the brain that would normally be stimulated by the retina. The images will bypass the eye, and go directly to the brain.

Professor Normann hopes to implant their first subject with this array within one year to provide proof of the concept.

Normann believes that his research team is fortunate to have a special friend in Las Vegas.

"These experiments we do are expensive experiments. The creation of these kinds of architectures has cost quite a bit of money in the past and the tools used to make these kinds of devices are expensive. The graduate students and technicians that work with these devices to prove the concepts we're trying to do, cost money. So without the help of the Wynn foundation, we would not be as far along in this process today."

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