"What the patients will see is not vision like you or I. It's going to be their bionic vision," McGuire said. "Maybe they'll see the outline or movement of their cat or dog, the floor, the window, a doorway. They might see the handle for the refrigerator." He added that a cane or seeing eye dog would still be needed to help with outdoor navigation.
Second Sight, which has offices in California and Switzerland, has treated around 200 patients with the Argus II. McGuire said that just under 400,000 people worldwide have legal blindness from retinitis pigmentosa.
However, an estimated six million people globally are blindness for other reasons including cancer, trauma, glaucoma and diabetes. In those cases, the eye or optical nerve is completely nonfunctioning. Stimulating the retina won't help. Instead, the Second Sight team wants to bypass the retina and go straight to the surface of the brain responsible for vision.
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To find out whether this strategy would work for them, they collaborated with UCLA neurosurgeon Dr. Nader Pouratian. A 30-year-old woman who had been blind for years and lacked other medical options for treatment participated in the study. A simple device containing a small electrode array was implanted in her brain. Then, each of the electrodes was stimulated wirelessly, producing the crucial spots of corresponding light. McGuire said there were no complications for the patient.
The proof of concept study gives the Second Sight team a head start on finishing the Orion I product development, including figuring out the power level and programming for the system's device. Next, they plan to submit an application to the FDA for conducting a human clinical trial. The hope is to enroll their first patient during the first half of 2017.
McGuire, who joined Second Sight last year, recalled watching retinitis pigmentosa patients gain bionic vision. "When they see light for the first time, it's usually a pretty emotional moment," he said. "I've walked up and down the street with a lady, for example, who could tell where the cars were parked. She could see the crosswalk because it was white lines on black pavement." She called it the zebra stripes.