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First-in-Canada procedure at Toronto hospital is helping cure blindness

TORONTO – A device called the Argus Retinal Prosthesis System (Argus II) has given sight back to two Canadians.

For the first time in Canada the devices were successfully implanted at Toronto Western Hospital as part of a small observational study that could have big payoffs in the fight against blindness.

“I think it’s the most amazing development in medicine, something I never thought we’d see in our lifetime,” said Dr. Robert Devenyi, ophthalmologist-in-chief of the University Health Network. “I think bionic eye is a good phrase.”

The system is made up of three devices: electrodes surgically implanted onto the patient’s retina, a small computer pack worn externally, and glasses equipped with a camera.

Visual information is captured by the glasses and calibrated through the computer, then transmitted wirelessly to the electrodes which in turn transmit the information to the patient’s brain.

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“It made me feel wonderful. I was a bit emotional about it and got a little choked up,” Ian Nichols, a patient who received the device in September said.

Ian suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa, a condition that has left him completely blind.

“What I see [now] is a shimmering light that varies in intensity. The walls are light, pastel in shade. The door frames and the door are quite dark,” Nichols said.

Currently the treatment is only appropriate for patients with certain types of blindness, called “outer retinal degenerations, which means the rods and cones have degenerated,” explained Devenyi.

This means they lack the ability to discern between light and dark. The Argus II system enables them to differentiate between the two and recognize vague shapes, but no detail or colour. That could change in the future.

“There’s new software in the works as we speak. So we’ll be offering it to people, in all likelihood, with severe macular degeneration and other retinal diseases in the future,” Devenyi said.

One of the benefits of the system is that upgrades and modification can be done through the computer pack instead of invasive surgery. The technology is currently only approved for use in the small observational study but doctors expect Health Canada to approve it for the general public very soon

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