New hope has been given to sufferers of a hereditary disease affecting the retina after the first UK operations were carried out to implant so-called "bionic eyes" into patients, it was disclosed today.
Surgeons at Moorfields Eye Hospital have carried out successful operations to implant an artificial retinal device into the eyes of two blind patients as part of a clinical study.
The trial aims to restore a basic level of useful vision, in the form of spots of light and shapes of light and dark, to people suffering severe blindness due to retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a group of inherited eye diseases that affects the retina.
The technology consists of a tiny camera and transmitter mounted in a pair of glasses.
The camera transmits a wireless signal to an ultra-thin electronic receiver and electrode panel that are implanted in the eye and attached to the retina.
The electrodes stimulate the remaining retinal nerves allowing a signal to be passed along the optic nerve to the brain.
The brain perceives patterns of light and dark spots corresponding to the electrodes which are stimulated.
The operations were carried out by consultant retinal surgeon Lyndon da Cruz and his team at Moorfields in London, under the supervision of US colleagues who developed the device with the company Second Sight in the US.
Mr da Cruz said: "Moorfields is proud to have been one of only three sites in Europe chosen to be part of evolving this exciting new technology.
"The devices were implanted successfully in both patients and they are recovering well from the operations.
"It is very special to be part of a programme developing a totally new type of treatment for patients who would otherwise have no chance of visual improvement."
British Retinitis Pigmentosa Society (BRPS) chief executive David Head, said: "These are significant advances and in conjunction with the advances being made in stem cell therapy and gene therapy, make for really exciting times as we work to translate science into treatment.
"I'm encouraged, and cautiously optimistic, that treatments are perhaps being developed in a time scale that is meaningful for people who have retinitis pigmentosa now.
"The society has been fighting RP for 32 years and there's no doubt these are some of the most promising developments we have seen."
Professor John Marshall, of St Thomas' Hospital, London, and chairman of the BRPS medical advisory board, warned that it was still "very early days."
He said: "It is very, very good news that devices have been developed, it is very good news that in experimental trials some individuals have had these inserted.
"However, the general public should not run away with the idea that this is going to be routine surgery for blind people in the immediate future because there is an enormous amount to learn."