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New Retinal Implant Treats Rare Genetic Eye Disease

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The FDA, for the first time ever, has approved a retinal implant for adults with certain genetic blindness. NY1's Erin Billups filed the following report.

There's been no way to treat the rare genetic eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa that damages the light-sensitive cells that line the retina. Until now.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is the first FDA approved retinal implant, giving limited sight to those with the most severe conditions of RP.

"This device implanted in the eye allows these people to see," says Dr. Robert Cykiert, an opthamologist and eye surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center. "The vision is not crystal clear."

Patients wear a pair of glasses with a video camera mounted on it that sends images to a smartphone-sized computer, which processes the images and sends that information back up to the glasses.

"And then there's actually a wireless connection, like Wi-Fi, between the glasses and this chip that's implanted inside the eye," Cykiert says. "The chip then sends that electrical signal to the optic nerve."

The brain then processes the patterns of light.

"They can see the outline of a car, something in the way," Cykiert says.

The newly approved artificial retina is seen as a major breakthrough, opening the door to more innovation in the field and better sight for thousands.

"I would say [in] five to 10 years, we'll be able to connect video cameras directly to the brain, which will provide superb vision," Cykiert says.

There are kinks, though, to work out with the Argus II. During the clinical study, one-third of the patients experienced a number of adverse effects.

Cykiert, though, says the benefits still outweigh the risk when the outcome is partial sight from total blindness.

He is one of many eye surgeons waiting to undergo training to outfit patients with the bionic eye, and says there's already great anticipation for the new product.

"I've actually gotten many emails and phone calls from patients around the country who have asked me about this," he says.

The Argus II is the result of a 10-year project funded through private and federal dollars.

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