Tech

People with bionic eye implants are going blind again after the gadget expired inside their bodies

Business Insider US
Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories/Getty Images
Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories/Getty Images
  • More than 350 people have a discontinued retinal implant in their eyeballs.
  • The invention was once a cutting-edge option for restoring sight, but it has been replaced by newer technologies.
  • The company that made the implant is nearly bankrupt and not offering to remove or update the device.
  • For more stories visit www.BusinessInsider.co.za

Regaining your sight, only to have the world go dark again years later, is a frightening prospect facing at least 350 people with one type of bionic implant.

Second Sight Medical Products, a biotech company that's now on the verge of bankruptcy, received FDA approval in 2013 for a cutting-edge implant that did not restore "normal" vision, but something close to it. 

The device, the Argus II retinal implant, was discontinued in 2019 in favour of a newer technology.

Now, hundreds of people who still have the old implant have been left in the lurch: no software upgrades as promised, and no repairs if something goes wrong. It means some have lost their sight altogether, and many more risk the same, according to IEEE Spectrum.

From pulses of light to a world of dark

The surgically-implanted device provides a somewhat rudimentary bionic vision for people like Barbara Campbell, who lost her vision to a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa. The degenerative disease caused her to go completely blind in her 30s, and the Argus II was her only option for regaining some degree of sight, she told Spectrum.

The Argus II works to provide some vision, if not a perfect restoration. The device pairs with special glasses and a clip-on transmitter that turns video into pulses of light. For some, those pulses helped to illuminate crosswalks and basic shapes.

Campbell got the implant as a part of a clinical trial in 2009, and she said it helped her navigate the busy streets and subways of New York City for four years before it stopped working and everything went dark again.

But for others, the device took some getting used to. Linda Kirk told Spectrum that the flashes of light were more distracting than helpful. She stopped using the device after a couple of years.

Kirk and Campbell may not be able to use their Argus II implants along with the designated glasses, but the technology remains inside their eyes. What's more, the implant could pose a risk during procedures like MRI scans, and options to remove it are expensive, painful, or both, Spectrum reported.

The new implant, called Orion, uses similar eyeglasses and a video camera, but it stimulates the brain directly rather than working through the affected eye. The device is currently in a six-patient clinical trial funded by a $6.4 million (R69 million) grant from the US National Institutes of Health, which is scheduled to be released over five years.

However, some Orion trial participants told Spectrum they plan to have implant removed at the end of the study, given the company's uncertain future.

"Had I known three years ago what I know now, I probably wouldn't have signed up for it," said Benjamin Spencer, an Orion participant who got his neural implant in 2018. 

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