Millions of people worldwide suffer from retinal degenerative disorders, a group of debilitating conditions with a major impact on quality of life and tremendous socioeconomic consequences. Common to all these conditions is the damage to photoreceptor cells of the retina, which malfunction and disappear, causing a continuous decline in vision. A number of approaches have been explored to slow down the rate of degeneration and reverse loss of vision, including genetic, pharmacological, surgical and cellular interventions, but there is currently no options available that can restore the lost vision.
The La Jolla-based startup Nanovision Biosciences is determined to restore sight to blind patients afflicted with retinal degenerative disorders. They offer a novel nanotechnology approach to retinal prosthesis, an engineered device that replace lost photoreceptors. The technology is based on arrays of silicon nanowires that simultaneously sense light and electrically stimulate the retina. These arrays of optoelectronic nanowires are bundled together into small electrodes that forms the core of the neural retinal stimulation system. A wireless device is able to transmit power and data to the nanowire arrays over a single wireless connection at record speed and energy efficiency. The entire device is packaged in biologically compatible material, which is then surgically implanted into the space created by the degenerated photoreceptors.
In contrast to existing retinal prostheses, Nanovision’s approach does not require a remote vision sensor to record visual data and convert the gathered information into signals. Instead, the silicon nanowires mimic the retina’s light-sensing cones and rods to directly stimulate retinal cells. In addition, the nanowires give the prosthesis higher resolutions than anything achieved by other devices.
In a proof-of-concept study, published in the Journal of Neural Engineering, the wirelessly powered nanowire array was inserted beneath a rat’s degenerated retina. The test showed promising results, and the startup is now working to transition the technology towards clinical trials, helping those who suffer from severe retinal degeneration. Animal tests are already in progress, with clinical trials following.
With a growing aging population, the number of people suffering from retinal degeneration disorders is set to increase dramatically. Hand in hand with the high prevalence and growth of retinal degenerative disorders, the treatment costs are soaring. It is estimated that the global cost of visual impairment due to Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) alone is $343 billion, including $255 billion in direct health care costs. Nanovision is developing an innovative type of retinal prosthesis that could revolutionize the treatment of retinal degenerative disorders. Although still early, the technology could help people with impaired vision and significantly improve quality of life for millions around the world. And although there is no estimate of cost at this point, a cure is likely to reduce the global cost of retinal degenerative disorders.
The groundbreaking technology stems from research at UCSD and the Salk Institute, and the startup was founded in 2012 by Scott Thorogood, William Freeman and Gabriel Silva. Nanovision has previously received commercialization support and funding through the TATRX/Qualqomm Wireless Health Innovation Challenge, which aims to nurture and accelerate the commercialization of selected wireless health technologies. Research of the technology has, besides Nanovision, been funded by Qualcomm Inc. and the Institute of Engineering in Medicine and the Clinical and Translational Research Institute at UCSD.