Blind World Magazine

R&D Magazine's 2005 Innovator of the Year.

August 12, 2005.
R & D Magazine.

Mark Humayun, MD, PhD
BS, Georgetown University, Washington, DC MD, Duke University Medical School, Durham, NC
PhD, Biomedical Engineering, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Current positions:
. Professor of Ophthalmology and Biomedical Engineering, University of Southern California
. Associate Director of Research, Doheny Retina Institute (an affiliated organization of the Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles)
. Director, NSF Biomimetic Microelectronics Systems Engineering Research Center, University of Southern California
. Clinical Affiliation: Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California
. Intern, Roanoke Memorial Hospital,
. Resident, Duke Eye Center
. Fellowship, Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute, Johns Hopkins University
. Associate Professor and Director of the Intraocular Retinal Prosthesis Laboratory, Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute, Johns Hopkins University
. Board Certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology, 1995
. Memberships:
American Ophthalmological Society
American Society of Retinal Specialists
Biomedical Engineering Society
Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology
The Vitreous Society
The Retina Society

Patents: Dr. Humayun is the sole or co-inventor of 19 patents based on his research over the past 13 years. These include patents for retinal prostheses, retinal microstimulation, intraocular drug delivery, ophthalmic surgical devices (cannulas), implantable retinal electrode arrays, and methods for training visual prosthesis.

Dr. Mark Humayun, a professor of ophthalmology at the Keck School of Medicine and associate director of research at the Doheny Eye Institute at the Univ. of Southern California, has pioneered new ways of helping the blind to see. He is doing this is by melding high-tech materials and technology with advanced surgical methods to restore sight to those who until now had little hope of ever seeing again.

Humayun, a doctor of ophthalmology who holds a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, is R&D Magazine's 2005 Innovator of the Year. The award is being presented to Humayun for his work on retinal implants and in recognition for his lifelong quest to helping the blind to see.

Humayun has spent the last 17 years working on a project that borrows from electronics technology, biocompatible materials and advanced surgical techniques to implant an intraocular retinal prosthesis, which essentially fills the role of the cells in the retina that have been ravaged by disease. The work led by Humayun is the focus of a team of researchers that includes other ophthalmologists at USC, materials and electronics researchers at five Dept. of Energy (DOE) laboratories, scientists at other universities, and Second Sight Medical Products Inc., a small California company (see sidebar).

In its current form the retinal implant is a 4 mm x 5 mm device studded with 16 electrodes in a 4 x 4 array. It is implanted in the retina where the photoreceptor rods and cones are, and it transmits electrical pulses to the intact neural paths of the patient, which in turn transmit the signals to the brain, allowing for sight. To date, Humayun has implanted Model 1 versions of the device in six blind patients, sufferers of retinitis pigmentosa (RP), restoring some limited sight to them. The first implant was done three and a half years ago and, Humayun says, it continues to operate well.

To get to that plateau of achievement, to restore hope where there was none, Humayun had to first make new discoveries about the effects of known eye diseases, like RP and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) that flew in the face of conventional wisdom. His biomedical engineering Ph.D. dissertation, which he completed after earning his M.D. in ophthalmology, outlined the device that is now used to restore vision. He continues to play an active role in the development of future generations of the device, which will be smaller and more flexible than the current experimental model. The devices that have been implanted are made by Second Sight Medical Products Inc., Sylmar, Calif.

While overcoming many technical and scientific challenges, it is what these devices do for the patient that drives Humayun. After all, he has witnessed first hand the gift of giving sight to the blind.

"The first time a patient saw something in the operating room was the happiest moment in my life," Humayun says. "There is nothing more satisfying to me in my professional career. "You can hear it from them even to this day," he adds, "when they come in for testing because they are laughing and giggling and really having fun with the device."

CAPTION: Dr. Mark Humayun uses a small external camera to transmit images to an implanted 4 mm x 5 mm retina chip with 16 electrodes, which is positioned near the ganglion cell layer of the eye. Six blind patients have been implanted with the device, one has had a device installed for more than three years. All images: USC/Doheny

Family inspiration

Humayun grew up in a family of physicians -- his mother and four uncles are physicians. But it was his grandmother who inspired him to become an eye surgeon and to specifically tackle the challenge of blindness.

Tasleem Humayun, cared for the young Mark Humayun when as a toddler his father (and mother) went to Cambridge so he could work on his master's degree in economics at William's College. "My grandmother went blind with diabetic retinopathy," Humayun recalls. "She raised me and that really was the impetus for me to get into ophthalmology."

Humayun's grandfather and grandmother were world travelers. It was not uncommon for his grandfather, who was educated at Oxford, to travel far and wide and include the impressionable young Mark in his adventures.

"Every summer we would spend three months with my grandparents. We would see them in different places. Sometimes it was London, sometimes China, or Egypt, Iran, or the Soviet Union. As a kid I got to see a lot of different places. "But by the age of 18, Humayun also experienced a very different side of life; Tasleem was bearing the full effects of diabetic retinopathy, basically bleeding of the eyes. Without any type of laser surgery available at the time, she slowly went blind. "She just gave up on life," Humayun said of his grandmother. "It was so depressing. She died shortly thereafter.

"The disease had a huge impact, and it wasn't just because she went blind. People don't understand that when you are old and ailing and you have all of these things going on, then you go blind, that is sort of the last straw."

Dr. Humayun's research is sponsored by the Medical Science Division in the Dept. of Energy's Office of Science. Humayun was the Symposium Chair of the DOE's Second Intl. Symposium on Artificial Sight held this past April. Many of his artificial retinal devices are co-developed at various DOE national laboratories.

Neural paths

Arguably the first breakthrough in Humayun's research set the course for the next 17 years. He had discovered that in the cases of certain retinal diseases -- RP and AMD -- the parts of the eye that were damaged were the " photoreceptor" cells of the retina, the rods and cones that normally convert light into electrical impulses. But the diseases leave intact the neural paths to the brain, paths that transport the electrical signals. Thus, while the input from the photoreceptors eventually ceases, up to 70 to 90 percent of the nerve structures set up to receive those inputs remain intact.

The general thought at the time was that "once you lose the photoreceptors you lose the rest of the circuitry as well," Humayun says. "We found that the nerve cells in the eye are left fairly intact, so the task we had was how do you take images and convert them into tiny electrical pulses. "That is exactly what the photoreceptors do, they capture light and convert it into chemical pulses and this information is sent to the brain and it allows us to see," Humayun explains.

"What we did was take a camera image and then convert that through software code into tiny patterns of electrical stimulation that stimulate these remaining cells and allows a blind person to see."

The implant, a sliver of silicone and platinum, is but one piece of the overall system. Patients with the Model 1 device, also wear a pair of glasses equipped with a tiny video camera, radio frequency transmitter and battery. The camera captures images and sends them to a microprocessor, which converts the signal to an electrical signal. That signal is transmitted to a radio receiver behind the patient's ear and from there to the device itself, where it "lights up" electrodes and stimulates the remaining retinal neurons.

The implanted device sits a top and it attached to the retina."Retina tissue lines the inside of the eye, much like wallpaper on a wall," Humayun says. "It is very delicate, like delicate tissue paper. "The idea is to develop this whole new genre of microelectronics where the heat and the sharpness of the silicone stay away and you package them in such a way so it can survive in the eye and not damage any tissue," Humayun says.

"What actually contacts this tissue are very delicate bioelectrodes that relay the stimulation pattern to the nerve cells." Alignment of the device is critical. "Even if there is a 50 or 100 micron misalignment that can [mean you will need to] double the applied voltage and then you are dissipating more heat in the tissue," Humayun explains. "You don't want to crush the neuron either. So you have to be right in the middle. Proximity is the key."

Teamwork Has Led to the Success of the Retinal Prosthesis

Dr. Mark Humayun is quick to tell anyone that it takes a team of talented people to tackle the grand challenge of helping the blind to see. The project he leads on the retinal prosthesis is an example of that. Humayun, a professor of ophthalmology at the Keck School of Medicine and associate director of research at the Doheny Eye Institute at the Univ. of Southern California, and the 2005 R&D Magazine Innovator of the Year Award, says none of accolades he receives today would come if it were not for the efforts of the team he works with.

Beginning with his mentor and colleague Eugene de Juan Jr., the CEO of the Doheny Retina Institute and professor of ophthalmology at USC's Keck School of Medicine, who was a first year faculty member when Humayun was wrapping up his medical school education at Duke Univ., Durham, NC.

"He was the guy who pushed me to be involved in this project and to continue it," Humayun says. "He was the person to tell you to keep on doing this project, that it is a good idea, no matter what anyone else thinks."

There also is Jim Weiland, who did a post doc with Humayun and who has been involved in the project for more than seven years. Wentai Liu, now at Univ. of California-Santa Cruz designed the first chip and the Model 2 chip. Humayun has known him since their days at Duke.

Eli Greenbaum at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tenn., is another key participant in the project. There are five DOE labs taking part in this project.

Oak Ridge leads the multi-laboratory effort and is testing various components developed at other DOE labs as well as developing special sensors. Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois, is investigating diamond-based electrode arrays and biocompatible components; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Calif., developed the rubberized electrode arrays; Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM., developed optical methods for neural recording; and Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM., is working on microelectromechanical (MEMS) electrode array structures.

On the commercial side of the project is Second Sight Medical Products Inc., Sylmar, Calif., which is helping develop, market and sell the implants.

Skip Derra is a freelance writer in Chandler, Ariz

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