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By Jonathan Tomlin
Doctors in Oxford have fitted the first British patient with a bionic eye to partially restore his vision.
The operation took place at the Oxford Eye Hospital, part of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, with the surgical team led by Robert MacLaren, Professor of Ophthalmology at the University.
Chris James has become the first person in the UK to have an electronic retina implanted into the back of his eye to treat a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa.
Retinitis pigmentosa is a progressive disease that sees light-detecting cells in the retina deteriorate over time. It is an inherited condition that affects around one in every 3,000-4,000 people in Europe. There are between 20,000 and 25,000 suffers in the UK.
Professor MacLaren described the treatment as “as major a breakthrough as cochlear implants were for the deaf. It allows patients to see in black and white giving them the potential to read again. Previously they could only see light and shade.”
James, 54, a council worker from Wiltshire, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in his mid-20s, following a referral to the Oxford Eye Hospital. After a number of years of stable vision he became legally blind in 1990 following a sharp dip in his ability to see.
In 2003, another decrease in vision rendered Chris completely blind in his left eye and only able to distinguish lights in his right. After having the artificial retina implanted in his left eye, Chris can now recognise a plate on a table and other basic shapes. He commented: “This is not a cure, but it may put the world into some perspective. It will give me some imagery rather than just a black world.”
Clara Eaglen, Eye Health Campaigns Manager at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said: “At RNIB we talk to people every day who tell us about the huge impact that losing their sight has on daily life, so this is very interesting research and is a step in the right direction. It’s also interesting to learn that this implant could potentially be used to treat other conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of sight loss in the UK.”
Felicity de Vere, a third year Oxford medical student taught by Professor MacLaren, said: “There are a number of places involved in the development of this treatment, including King’s College London and UCL. What is particularly important about the role Oxford University is playing is on the clinical side of things, by transferring a developing treatment to actual patients.”
The UK part of the trial is co-ordinated by Oxford University and will see up to 12 blind patients receive the implant in operations at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust and King’s College Hospital in London.
The UK trial is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Health Research with extra support from the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre.