The Israeli Chip That Gives Sight to the Blind

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Herzliya-based Nano Retina intends to change the lives of millions of people all over the world by doing the seemingly impossible. “We want to restore sight to blind people,” says CEO Ra’anan Gefen. The company developed technology to help those who have lost their sight due to retinal degeneration from diseases affecting people over 60, as opposed to those born blind. That’s roughly six million people — half the population of blind people in the Western world. Thee total population of blind people worldwide is approximately 40 million.

Nano Retina has been developing since 2009 a tiny device for implantation on the retina at the back of the eye - a device that mimics the retina’s natural function. “As we develop the device, we put emphasis on giving blind people back functional sight that will allow them to function in society, enabling them to go outside their homes and find their way. Reading isn’t at the top of the list. Most of these people stop going outside. We want to give them back the ability to function that was stolen from them,” Gefen said.

“Our second priority is that the operation be non-invasive. The existing solutions require several hours of surgery under general anesthesia, which is unacceptable for most people at that age. We’re aiming for a half-hour procedure in a medical clinic, not even in a hospital. It’s like cataract surgery. It’s a significant change that allows technology to be practical for people, not just in the research field. After a recovery period, we expect sight to be restored almost immediately,” Gefen said. Since the implant is made to last for decades, that the patient will have to undergo the procedure only once.

Nano Retina’s first concept was miniaturizing a retinal implant to a compact unit of three to four millimeters that could be implanted on the retina. Gefen says that the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis, which is already on the market, is about a centimeter in diameter, so it rests outside the eyeball. About 100 people worldwide have undergone a sight-restoring procedure, according to Gefen.

“We’ve miniaturized all the system’s components, and now our challenge is to link them together. We’ve proven that in animal trials, and the next stage is human trials, which we’ll be starting in another two years,” Gefen said, adding that Nano Retina hopes by 2016 to receive CE marking to allow selling the product in Europe. The product’s price is expected at $100,000, according to the price of the alternatives on the market.

The implant restores the eye’s lost optical functions. It contains a camera-like component that receives the picture through the eye’s natural optics — in other words, it sees what the eye sees. The image is transmitted along the optic nerve to the brain’s neurons, which are capable of receiving and decoding it. The system is powered by a laser beam transmitted to the eye from rechargeable glasses.

The implant will not provide users with the sharp, colorful image they were used to seeing. The implant’s operation is based on breaking the image down into pixels, like in a digital camera, in a quantity that enables sight. Gefen claims that the implants already on the market offer 50 to 55 pixels in black and white only (without gray), while Nano Retina’s goal is to increase the quality and sharpness of the picture. “We decided we needed more pixels to enable patients to function truly independently. Our goal is to reach 600 pixels, and we hope to reach gray, too.” Gefen explains that since the mechanism that enables the human eye to see color has not yet been decoded, the implant cannot provide a color image.

Nano Retina, which has eight employees, was established as a transcontinental joint venture between Zyvex Labs of Texas, which develops electromechanical components, and the Israeli company Rainbow Medical, which invests in the medical devices industry. Rainbow Medical was established in 2007 by Leon Recanati and Efi Cohen-Arazi, leading businessmen in Israel’s life-sciences industry, and inventor Yossi Gross, a serial entrepreneur who founded more than 30 companies, most of them in the medical devices field, and has more than 500 patents registered in his name. Since the group was formed six years ago, it has helped found 11 companies that develop solutions in fields such as chronic pain, cardiology and diabetes. It has raised more than $50 million from private investors and from groups such as Sony and Medtronic.

The left eye of Leonardo da Vinci's 16th century masterpiece the 'Mona Lisa' painting.Credit: AP

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