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August 2, 1999 Contact: Rachel Snyder (312)996-3457, firstname.lastname@example.org
UIC PROFESSOR HOPES TO MAKE THE BLIND SEE
The first motion picture images -- even before Charlie Chaplin's snowy classics -- were hazy, black and white visages of movement, not unlike the images UIC neural engineer John Hetling anticipates blind persons will see if the retinal implants he is developing turn out to be as successful as initial laboratory tests suggest.
While not intended to treat blindness caused by trauma, the artificial silicon retina is currently being tested for use in patients who have lost their sight to retinal degenerative diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration, the two most common causes of blindness in the U.S.
"I can't wait to have the bandages come off that first person and ask them what they see," Hetling says. "If there's a visual sensation it will likely be very crude, and our next step will be to improve the device. In order to make these improvements, we have to understand this new artificial bioelectric interface, and that's the goal of my research."
Hetling's work is representative of a new trend in bioengineering research and development toward biocompatible synthetic materials to "hot-wire a bad nervous system," as Hetling puts it.
Hetling anticipates that the artificial silicon retina may eventually allow a previously blind person to read large print in a well lit room, though the dynamic range of light perception will be significantly less than biological retinas and images will not be in color, although this may be a possibility in the future.
"Until recently, the engineer couldn't do much more than just take physical measurements, or implant electrical or mechanical assistance devices," said Richard Magin, head of UIC's Department of Bioengineering. "But now you can design specific genetic materials; you can design proteins that have specific functions. This results in the ability to launch a much broader attack on a medical problem."
While several other approaches to curing blindness due to retinal degeneration are being investigated, like gene therapy, pharmacological medications and transplantation, Hetling believes prosthetic devices will be the first viable treatments. "There are no external connections or batteries," he says. "Ours is a prosthetic device powered by light naturally entering the eye."
The prosthesis, if approved by the Food and Drug Administration, will be implanted beneath the retina in the eye, where it will replace the function of the photoreceptor cells lost to disease. The great advantage of this approach, according to Hetling, is that the artificial silicon retina makes use of the part of the retina spared by the disease.
Hetling's team hopes to have the implants in human volunteers within two years.
Hetling, who joined UIC's burgeoning, five-member bioengineering department last year, has worked on the artificial silicon retina along with inventor-brothers Alan and Vincent Chow of Optobionics Corporation, since he was a graduate student at UIC.
With 25,000 students, the University of Illinois at Chicago is the largest and most diverse university in the Chicago area. UIC is home to the largest medical school in the United States and is one of the 88 leading research universities in the country. Located just west of Chicago's Loop, UIC is a vital part of the educational, technological and cultural fabric of the area.
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