Big Hopes for Tiny Chip Local Scientists Who Invented Artificial Retina Keep an Eye on First Blind People to Receive It

By Rackl, Lorilyn | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

Big Hopes for Tiny Chip Local Scientists Who Invented Artificial Retina Keep an Eye on First Blind People to Receive It


Rackl, Lorilyn, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Don Davia of Glen Ellyn has three children. He's only seen the face of his oldest.

Davia, 58, watched helplessly as his vision gradually disappeared thanks to retinitis pigmentosa, a deterioration of the retina that causes night blindness and tunnel vision. In Davia's case, the disease destroyed his sight.

By the age of 18, Davia was legally blind. By 28, he couldn't see a thing.

He remembers taking mega-doses of vitamin A, the supposed "miracle drug" that did nothing but dash his hopes for better vision.

He recalls hearing about procedures in Cuba and Russia that were touted as a cure for his condition. They turned out to deliver nothing but false hope.

"I'm a cynic by now," says Davia, a state worker who helps blind people find jobs and stay employed.

But even Davia is intrigued by the work coming out of a Wheaton- based business called Optobionics Corp.

That's where Dr. Alan Chow and his brother, Vincent, have developed a silicon microchip that's minuscule in size but enormously promising for millions of people with failing eyesight.

During landmark operations last month at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield and University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center, the chips were implanted for the first time beneath human retinas as part of a Food and Drug Administration-approved study.

The immediate goal is to determine whether the chip can be safely tolerated.

The long-term hope is that if the eye doesn't reject it, the Artificial Silicon Retina chip might help restore at least some vision in people with certain retinal disorders.

The three unidentified patients in the study had lost almost all of their vision from retinitis pigmentosa, the same disorder that ravaged Davia's retinas. For those who live their lives in darkness, recouping even a small degree of sight can make a big difference.

"It's hard to imagine what it means to someone who is almost completely blind to recover just one or two percent of vision," said Chow, an ophthalmologist.

One of the patients in the study told him: "If you can show me enough so I can walk down an aisle without bumping into walls ... that would mean a great deal."

Just what will be the outcome of last month's operations remains to be seen.

Chow and others have to wait for the incisions to heal and evaluate what effect - if any - the implanted devices have had.

As far as Davia is concerned, even if the results show nothing more than tolerance for the implanted chips, it's a step in the right direction.

"It's the first step in many steps," Davia said. "At least they're moving forward."

Fixing the film

If the eye is like a camera, the retina is the film.

In a camera, light rays pass through lenses that focus images onto film.

In an eye, light waves make it through the cornea and crystalline lens before the focused image is projected on the retina, a multitiered membrane of light-sensing cells that lines the back of the eye.

When these cells - the photoreceptors - encounter light, it triggers a chemical reaction that sparks an electrical impulse.

That impulse travels from the retina through the optic nerve and into the brain, resulting in sight.

Loss of these all-important photoreceptor cells occurs in people with retinitis pigmentosa and other retinal diseases including macular degeneration, a more common condition in which the central area of the retina deteriorates.

This is where Optobionics' Artificial Silicon Retina chip comes in.

The chip - smaller than the head of a pin and about half as thick as a piece of paper - contains roughly 3,500 microscopic solar cells.

The cells' job is to convert light into electrical impulses, essentially doing the job of the damaged photoreceptors. (Unlike other artificial retinas being tested, Optobionics' chip is powered solely by light, so there are no wires or batteries involved. …

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