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Bionic Eyes and Science's Big Step Forward

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Medical science moves in painfully small steps and occasionally huge leaps. Giant jumps such as the polio vaccine, insulin's use to control diabetes and HIV/AIDS treatments are mixed in with the far more frequent introduction of "me-three" drugs and minor tweaks on well-established procedures.

This past week, the FDA approved the Argus Retinal Prosthesis System ("Argus II"), a medical device that is truly a major step forward. The device accomplishes the remarkable feat of restoring some functional vision to some suffers of blindness.

Here's the basic idea behind the invention: People with functioning vision have photoreceptors (rods and cones) in the retina that convert light into neural signals, a process called phototransduction. These neural signals pass along the optic nerve into the brain. In the brain, the neural signals are converted into visual perception. If someone's photoreceptors are damaged so that they can't convert light into neural impulses, the first step in this pathway is interrupted. Because the first step is interrupted, no signal is sent down the optic nerve and so the person is blind.

A patient using the Argus II system has a surgical implant in their retina that consists of an array of electrodes and an antenna. The patient wears a special set of glasses that sends a video image to a portable, patient-worn computer. The signal is processed by the computer and then sent back to the glasses. The glasses emit a wireless signal to the implant's antenna that then passes to the implant's electrode array. The implant's electrode array emits electrical pulses that simulate what the person's damaged photocells might produce. The implant's electrical pulses trigger a signal that is transmitted by the optic nerve to the brain, enabling a person to have some sight.

For those who think this invention sounds like Colonel Steve Austin's bionic eye, we should remind ourselves that the device doesn't enable super-human vision acuity. Rather, it enables some blind patients to have some sight.

I am honored to note that I have a personal connection to this story. I first met Dr. Robert Greenberg, the President and CEO of Second Sight (maker of Argus II), when we were together in graduate school 20 year ago. We used to talk about science, medicine, business and the importance of trying to achieve something truly important. Rob has worked tirelessly for over two decades on the goal of creating a functional retinal prosthesis that would restore sight. Today, thousands of people around the world can benefit from his talent as a scientist, a doctor and businessman.

In Measure of a Nation, I spent a lot of time discussing areas where America is lagging behind but I also spoke about America's competitive advantages. There I emphasized that America is the home to many of the world's leading universities, research centers, hospitals, centers for innovation and opportunities for entrepreneurship. We need to continue to nurture those competitive advantages so that companies like Second Sight and break-through inventions like Argus II continue to be developed and produced in America.

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