$2.5 Million Award Will Move First-of-Its-Kind Visual Prosthesis Brain Implant to a Clinical Trial

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By Mary Ceron-Reyes

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While there is currently no cure for blindness, a first-of-its-kind artificial vision system developed by Illinois Institute of Technology researchers will advance to clinical trials this year, bringing with it the potential to restore partial vision to people who have lost their sight.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Illinois Tech researchers $2.5 million for the first year of a three-year project that includes implanting their new type of wireless visual prosthesis system in volunteers. Funding will be provided as part of the NIH’s The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative.

The implant system was developed by a multi-institutional team led by Philip R. Troyk—executive director of the Pritzker Institute of Biomedical Science and Engineering, professor of biomedical engineering, and affiliated professor in Stuart School of Business—and represents 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.

“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,” says Troyk.

“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,” says Illinois Tech President Alan W. Cramb.

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 people to see—an intracortical visual prosthesis may be the only possible advanced visual sensory aid from which they can benefit.

While the brain works as a powerful processing system and receives millions of nerve signals from the eyes, if the eyes are no longer able to communicate with the brain, Troyk says that researchers can “intervene by bypassing the eye and optic nerve and going directly to the area of the brain called the visual cortex.”

The Intracortical Visual Prosthesis System is the first intracortical visual implant to use a group of fully implanted miniaturized wireless stimulators to help explore whether individuals with no sight can visualize rendered images in real-time through visual perception.

“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,” says Troyk.

In addition, this visual prosthesis system allows devices to be implanted for an extended period of time, which is a unique advantage that provides researchers ample time to explore how the device can work effectively, and for the recipient to learn how the device can be useful.

In the past two years during the preclinical phase, the Illinois Tech team has worked with surgeons to develop and refine surgical procedures, and now are prepared to surgically implant the devices. During the clinical phase, the idea is to be able to test whether this device will provide study participants with an improved ability to navigate and perform basic orientation tasks.

“After much effort and waiting we will now be recruiting our participants and planning for the ICVP implantation. This success is once again a reminder about how it is all of our team members pulling together that makes the difference,” shares Troyk.

He adds that volunteers are regarded as valuable members of the team who will be able to report their findings and personal experiences, which would otherwise be unknown to researchers.

Implant surgeries are scheduled to take place at Rush University Medical Center in early 2021. In addition, Illinois Tech will partner with The Chicago Lighthouse; Johns Hopkins University; the University of Texas at Dallas; Microprobes for Life Science; Sigenics, Inc.; and The University of Chicago on the initiative, with Troyk serving as the principal investigator.

Troyk and his research team will begin the clinical trial process on September 1.

Disclaimer: “Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number UH3NS095557. This content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.”

Philip R.Troyk, “Clinical Testing of an Intracortical Visual Prosthesis System,” National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke ($2,522,750); Grant number 4UH3NS095557-03