Toronto hospital implants Canada’s first “bionic eye”
New retinal surgery gives gift of sight to previously blind patients.
When 76-year-old Ian Nichols’ grandchildren were born over the last 20 years, he loved holding them in his arms, but a vision impairment prevented him from seeing them as they grew.
That has changed. Nichols is one of two patients to have recently undergone once unimaginable “bionic eye” surgery at Toronto Western Hospital, the first time the procedure was performed in Canada.
The Beach resident has been blind for roughly 20 years since developing retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition. During the three-hour surgery, his eye was cut open, a microchip was inserted and the incision closed with 20 tiny stitches.
The microchip is wirelessly connected to glasses equipped with a video camera and transmitter unit. The camera transmits images as an electrical signal to the chip, which sends the visual information along the optic nerve to the brain. While sight is not completely restored, the patient can once again perceive light.
“I’ll never be able to recognize faces, but I will be able to see the image of a person and know if they are wearing a dark-coloured top or a light-coloured top,” Nichols said.
He was recently delighted to see the “shimmering image” of his 17-year-old granddaughter.
“I have literally never seen her,” he said. “I held her in my arms from the time of her birth and now, I’ll be able to get some sense of her in the near future as my sight gets better.”
Nichols said he can make out doorways, reach for objects and sense the shadows and forms of people. His vision is expected to improve with continued use of the prosthesis.
“I know there is a long road ahead, but for the first time in many, many years I have hope and confidence that I will have at least some useful vision,” he said.
Dr. Robert Devenyi, the University Health Network’s ophthalmologist-in-chief, performed the surgery and said the technology behind the procedure is “the most amazing development in medicine in our lifetime.”
“It is something I never ever, ever thought we would see and I’ve been in retinal surgery for over 20 years,” he said, noting a handful of the operations have been done in the U.S., Germany and Italy.
“These are people who we had long forgotten about, who were blind and didn’t follow up in our offices because there was nothing to do for them.”
Devenyi said patients can expect to develop better sight with a potential Google Glass collaboration and future software enabling zoom and colour functions.
The hospital can complete another eight surgeries, but Devenyi said it is awaiting Health Canada approval allowing for more. They only have permission to do the surgery as part of the study.
Money will be a concern once approval is secured because the hospital relies on donors to fund the $144,000 surgery.
“But how can you put a price on that for people who can’t even see?” Devenyi asked. “We won’t see a more amazing development than this in our lifetime.”