Melbourne, Australia, November 9, 2016 - Researchers from the Department of Physics at the University of Melbourne (Dr David Garrett and Professor Steven Prawer) and the National Vision Research Institute (NVRI) of Australia founded by the Australian College of Optometry (Professor Michael Ibbotson and Associate Professor Hamish Meffin) have won a $1 M dollar grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The grant will be used to help demonstrate that their next generation diamond retinal implant can dramatically improve the quality of vision experienced by bionic eye users.
“With a growing team of outstanding local and international researchers, we have a real opportunity to provide a truly effective treatment for forms of blindness that have, until very recently, been incurable,” says Dr David Garrett, Department of Physics at the University of Melbourne.
The grant will be used to fund vitally important validation studies. The research is backed by Canadian company iBIONICS, which is commercialising the Melbourne-based invention. iBIONICS is complementing the Australian technology with world-leading photonics research and high reliability microsystem development to bring the bionic eye solution to the global market. Canadian surgeon and global retinal expert, Dr Flavio Rezende, is developing safe surgical methods to implant the device.
“This grant will allow us to demonstrate and refine the patterns of stimulation used in the diamond bionic eye implant that will result in users being able to read large print and recognize the faces of loved ones,” says Professor Steven Prawer, Department of Physics, University of Melbourne, and Cofounder and Chief Technology Officer of iBIONICS.
Retinal implants are devices that are implanted into the eye. By pulsing the electrodes with very small packets of electricity, researchers can trick the brain into perceiving a spot of light. The diamond device under development in Melbourne has 256 electrodes with the possibility of increasing to 1024. With 1024 pixels of light perceived in the brain, users of bionic retinas might be able to recognise faces, read and navigate freely without the use of a guide dog or cane. Retinal implants are beneficial to patients who have degenerative retinal diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa (RP) or age-related macular degeneration (AMD). These diseases affect the ability of the retina to sense light, eventually resulting in blindness.
“This presents an opportunity to move bionic technologies into the next phase in order to develop high resolution vision,” says Professor Michael Ibbotson, Director of NVRI.
Winner of the 2016 national awards, Startup Canada Innovation Award and the Creative Business Cup, iBIONICS is a bold life sciences startup specializing in nano-implants. iBIONICS designs, manufactures and commercializes smart implantable bionic solutions that treat debilitating diseases.
iBIONICS' flagship solution, The Diamond Eye, aims to replace blindness with artificial sight. By 2020, 200 million people worldwide will be living with degenerative retinal diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. The cost of AMD in Europe and North America alone is $56 billion per annum.
The Diamond Eye core technology was inspired by Cochlear, the $US8B global company that has helped over 450,000 deaf people to hear. Professor Steven Prawer, world-renowned materials scientist and Cofounder of iBIONICS, invented a new innovative way of approaching implants. His nanotechnology is packaged in diamond electrodes that stimulate neural tissue.
Neural technology and electric medicine are fast becoming favoured investment spaces for Silicon Valley super entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Retinal implants are the fastest growing vertical in electric medicine.
This born-global startup is headquartered in Ottawa-Gatineau with medical operations in Montreal and an R&D subsidiary in Melbourne, Australia.
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The National Vision Research Institute (NVRI) was founded in 1972 by the Australian College of Optometry (ACO) to pursue research in vision and the disorders of vision. Its goal is to conduct research that will lead to the preservation of sight and the prevention of blindness. The Institute is a division of the Australian College of Optometry.
The NVRI carries out basic science, translational and clinical research. It is committed to exploring the processes that generate vision disorders. All of its resources are devoted to research to study difficult problems that require intensive and coordinated investigation over long periods of time.
Over the years, the Institute’s research programmes have encompassed many topics, ranging from clinical to basic. Their outcomes have included the creation of the famous LogMAR chart for assessment of visual acuity, improved understanding of vision disorders such as amblyopia, cataract, presbyopia, retinal dystrophy and the exploration of the way visual stimuli are transmitted to the brain.
The current research of the NVRI covers several topics. One major area is the investigation of the retina using in vitro recording techniques. This work is closely aligned to research efforts aimed at developing visual prosthetic devices, commonly known as bionic eyes. Another topic is the development of the visual cortex, which is the area of the brain that provides the foundation for visual perception. Work in this field relates closely to the prevention of amblyopia. NVRI also investigates how vision integrates with motor actions: so-called sensorimotor coordination. This research is uncovering very fundamental findings about how the brain works in a coherent manner to generate action and perception.
Lions International in Victoria is a major supporter of research in the NVRI. Their research is strongly supported by partnerships and collaborations with the University of Melbourne and Monash University. The Director of the NVRI is a member of the Department of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Melbourne.