First-of-Its-Kind Artificial Vision System Moves to Clinical Trials

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With millions of people worldwide who are blind or suffering from sight-robbing diseases, and millions more expected to lose their vision over the next few years, a growing number of private companies and research institutes are working to develop bionic eyes, artificial vision systems and advanced visual prostheses. One of the newest projects is being undertaken by Illinois Institute of Technology. Researchers there were recently awarded $2.5 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund the first year of a three-year project which involves clinical trials of a first-of-its-kind wireless visual prosthesis system which aims to provide some limited vision to people with profound blindness.

The Intracortical Visual Prosthesis (ICVP) System being developed at Illinois Tech is designed to bypass the retina and optic nerves by connecting directly to the visual cortex of the brain. The ICVP System is the first intracortical visual implant to use a group of fully implanted, miniaturized, wireless stimulators to help individuals with no sight to visualize rendered images in real time.

The implant system was developed by a multi-institutional team led by Philip R. Troyk, executive director of Illinois Tech’s Pritzker Institute of Biomedical Science and Engineering, professor of biomedical engineering, and affiliated professor in Stuart School of Business. It is the culmination of nearly three decades of Illinois Tech research dedicated to ultimately providing artificial sight to those with blindness due to eye disease or trauma, according to an announcement by Illinois Tech.

“This is an incredibly exciting moment, not just for the field of biomedical science, but more importantly, for people with blindness and their loved ones around the world,” said Troyk. “This technology, developed right here at Chicago’s only tech-focused university, could have an incredible impact on the lives of individuals with visual impairment around the globe, and I thank our research and clinical partners for their commitment to helping improve the lives of those who have lost their vision.”

The NIH has awarded Troyk and his research partners $2.5 million in grant funding as part of the NIH’s The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which began the clinical trial process on September 1. Implant surgeries are scheduled to take place at Rush University Medical Center early in 2021. In addition, Illinois Tech will partner with The Chicago Lighthouse; Johns Hopkins University; the University of Texas at Dallas; Sigenics, Inc.; Microprobes for Life Science, Inc.; and the University of Chicago on the initiative, with Troyk serving as the principal investigator.

“Phil and his team at Illinois Tech have helped shape the entire field of visual implant research from right here on the South Side of Chicago,” said Alan W. Cramb, president of Illinois Tech. “From the inventor of the cell phone to one of the people behind Amazon Alexa, Illinois Tech’s faculty and alumni have been at the forefront of many of our era’s most notable scientific and technological developments, and this work continues that important legacy.”

The number of Americans with vision loss is rising rapidly. There is currently no cure for blindness, and an artificial vision system may be the best alternative form of treatment. Since many individuals affected by total blindness do not have intact retinas or optic nerves, but retain the visual cortex, the area of the brain that allows us to see, an intracortical visual prosthesis may be the only possible advanced visual sensory aid from which they could benefit. For further information contact ICVP@iit.edu or call (312) 567-5304.