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Centre urged to allow Bionic Eye trial

It is the first ever treatment for RP; till date, it has been implanted in 32 patients

ARTIFICIAL Retina (AR) or Bionic Eye, the only promise so far for restoring eyesight in patients affected by retinal disorders, may cease to become a distant dream for those with impaired retina in the country, if the Union Government were to give sanction for its clinical trial.

Retina India, a non-profit organisation, is in talks with the government to conduct clinical trial on a small group of patients suffering from retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetically-induced retinal disorder that progressively impairs vision. 

The idea is to demonstrate to the government that the technology works and that retinal disorders should also be given due focus apart from the other preventable blindness programmes. 

Speaking to Deccan Herald, Dr Rajat N Agrawal, managing trustee of Retina India and Co-director of Intra-ocular Implants, Doheny Retina Institute (University of Southern California, USA), said, “Bionic eye is the first ever treatment for RP, a genetic disorder leading to progressive visual impairment. While it’s still in the clinical trial phase, it is found to be effective.” 

Till date, the bionic eye has been implanted in 32 patients, who have been blind for 30 years on an average. While the patients are being followed up and trained by doctors, they can read big letters and make out silhouettes. 

“It is not easy to undergo the treatment, as the patient has to go through rigorous training after the implant. It’s like learning a new language as the sight is not the same as what he had once. We tell them clearly that the vision is limited and it’s all one could have as of now,” he said. 

Agrawal was also quick to add that cost and aversion by international biomedical companies to enter India are the biggest hurdles. The device and treatment would currently cost about Rs 50 lakh. 

He is holding a brainstorming session with people from scientific and technology communities like IISc, MindTree, IIM and even people suffering from RP to build an indigenous bionic eye device.  

A nation-wide prevalence study on RP is also being considered and may start by early 2011, Agrawal said. 

“According to the government’s estimate, about 15 per cent of the population has retinal disorders but I feel it’s around 40 per cent,” he said. Interestingly, South India has a higher prevalence of RP as intra-family marriage is a common practice. 

(Published in Deccan Herald on 30th September, 2010) *My story without a byline.

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