FP5 project achieves world breakthrough in treating blindness

February 23, 2005

Brussels, 22 Feb 2005

A project financed under the EU's Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) has successfully developed an electronic implant to allow a blind person to recover some vision.

In a ground-breaking experiment, the OPTIVIP project enabled a blind woman to 'see' images transmitted to her brain by a miniature camera mounted on her glasses. An implantable prosthesis, placed behind her eye, transmitted the camera's images to the optic nerve.

'This is a very good example of where European technology can lead worldwide,' said Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding, presenting the project on 21 February. 'We have the advantage of having developed the best possible method. This will enable us to sell it around the world instead of depending on a technology developed elsewhere,' Ms Reding added.

As Claude Veraart from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium explained, there are 15 teams worldwide trying to develop similar technology and although two US teams have performed implants comparable to OPTIVIP, the results in both cases failed to match those of the EU team.

Some 300,000 people throughout the EU suffer from retinopathies, conditions where blindness results from degeneration in cells in the retina, which lies at the back of the eye. As the layer of tissue which lines the eye and processes images deteriorates, the result is partial or total blindness, even though the optic nerve itself might still be healthy.

The OPTIVIP project explored the possibility of compensating for retinopathies by bypassing the damaged retinal cells and artificially stimulating the optic nerve directly, Professor Veraart said. The team implanted into the nerve an electrode that processes images filmed by a small camera inserted in the patient's glasses.

As Professor Veraart explained, OPTIVIP built on the results of an earlier European research project called MIVIP which, in 2000, implanted for the first time ever, an electronic prosthesis of this kind. Although highly successful, the MIVIP implant was placed deep within the skull, requiring a nine-day recovery period for the patient. In contrast, the OPTIVIP team developed a less invasive surgical technique by placing the prosthesis behind the eye, thus enabling the patient to recover after only two days in hospital.

'After surgery the previously totally blind patient was able to perceive light patterns transmitted from the camera. With practice and training, she learned to interpret the signals and recognise objects. In tests in the laboratory environment, the patient correctly identified patterns and objects in 87 per cent of cases. She was able to judge distances and grasp objects in her environment. The patient tolerates the implant very well; there are no unpleasant side effects,' stated the OPTIVIP team.

According to Professor Veraart, it took two weeks to train the patient for the efficient use of the device and she should soon be able to use it at home in her everyday environment.

The application, which is likely to cost some 20,000 euro, is expected to be commercialised by 2008. 'We have to remember that at present we are talking about a prototype,' said Ms Reding. At the beginning the cost is high, but after a while, because of the development of the market, the price will go down.'

For further information about OPTIVIP please visit:
http:///www.dice.ucl.ac.be/optivip/index. html
Or:
http:///www.md.ucl.ac.be/gren/Projets/opt ivip.html

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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