Bionic limbs have been entering the mainstream for a number of years, helping to improve the lives of people with limb difference. But could bionic cornea be on the horizon as the latest new revelation in human bionics? Initiatives backed by the WHO have already been instigated by several governments around the world, who are driving forward R&D with a mission to develop bionic devices and implants that have the potential to restore eyesight.
The necessity for this technology is, unfortunately, driven by a wide variety of causes that impact countless individuals each year. The human eye is an incredibly complex organ, and sight loss can stem from hereditary issues, injury or damage, macular degeneration in old age, or as a result of another serious health condition, such as diabetes. Of course, the consequences are devastating; patients lose the ability to work, live independently and safely, and maintain the same quality of life they experienced before.
The notion of creating a bionic eye, rather than a purely aesthetic prosthetic, has been in existence for centuries. First conceived of in the eighteenth century, it has garnered much interest within the medical community as our understanding of eyesight, and of the technology required to emulate it in humans, has improved.
In 2015, Professor Paul Stanga of the University of Manchester successfully completed the world's first bionic eye implantation. Since then, researchers in California have continued to augment the technology driving the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System – first conceived of by Dr Sam Williams and Dr Alfred Mann – which has already improved the sight of almost 200 patients around the world.
There are, of course, many challenges yet to be faced. At this stage in research, the hope of recreating a level of lucidity on par with human sight remains limited by the technology available; current bionic eyes feature far fewer electrodes than would be required for this level of clarity, although great steps forward have already been made in this arena, with work currently being undertaken into more than doubling the number of electrodes used in bionic eyes. Of course, many years of fervent R&D stand between current capabilities and full sight restoration.
However, the procedure itself – and the ability for the patient to assimilate this new technology into their lives – have already proven successful. This is, perhaps, the greatest hurdle, but researchers have already been able to demonstrate the remarkable capabilities we have at our disposal for working to reverse the devastating impact of vision loss.
Whilst the cost of developing bionic devices for eye related health remains high, continued R&D is expected to drive costs down over time. A stringent approval process also means that the time from development of bionic cornea to their clinical application could be many years, and then it could be many more years before the technology becomes affordable enough to fill the corneal blindness treatment gap that persists within the world's poorest communities.
The Tej Kohli Foundation
The Tej Kohli Foundation is at the forefront of the worldwide mission to eradicate corneal blindness from the world's poorest communities by closing the treatment gap with new technologies. Between 2015 and 2019 the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in Hyderabad was a leader in providing access to free treatment within remote rural communities which were poor and underserved. In 2020 it pivoted its focus away from direct intervention and toward the development of affordable and accessible solutions to corneal blindness that can be easily scaled into poor communities worldwide.
Tej Kohli is the founder of the philanthropic Tej Kohli Foundation and is the driving force behind the initiatives of the not-for-profit organisation. Recently he instigated a donation of $2 million to Massachusetts Eye & Ear in Boston, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, to develop novel new solutions for the prevention and cure corneal of blindness around the world.
In September 2020 Tej Kohli wrote a blog post about bioengineered cornea entering the mainstream and concluded that for patients in poorer countries who do not have eye bank infrastructure, or those high-risk patients who are not amenable to conventional donor cornea transplantation, bioengineered corneas represent a hope for eyesight restoration in patients all over the world.