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A glimpse of the future: bionic eye helps the blind

Famous for its film studios and music industry, Los Angeles is a city rich in innovation and creativity. Today, it is also home to a raft of companies that are helping to transform lives with breakthroughs in medical science.

At Second Sight Medical Products, based in the San Fernando Valley area, researchers are helping to lead the fight against loss of sight. The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is the world's first FDA approved 'bionic' eye, a sophisticated piece of technology that is helping the blind to see.

"It's the first time that there's ever been a treatment that ophthalmologists have for patients who are completely blind," Dr Robert Greenberg, CEO of Second Sight Medical Products, told CNBC's Innovation Cities.

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For more than 30 years Arizona resident Lisa Kulik has been living with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease which eventually leads to blindness.

"When I was diagnosed… I was pretty much told by every doctor that I saw that there was no cure, and there was nothing that I can do," Kulik told Innovation Cities.

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Today, Kulik has cause for optimism. Last June a chip was implanted on her retina, she was fitted with a small portable unit and given a pair of glasses with a small camera.

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"The implant picks up the signal from the video camera wirelessly, and then electrically stimulates the retina at the back of the eye and produces the perception of light for these patients," Greenberg said. "The best patients have actually been able to read letters and even read words," he added.

While patients regain just some of their vision and the Argus II is only effective treating certain types of blindness, the impact on Kulik's life has already been huge.

"The first thing that I saw with my device was the full moon in the sky," she said. "A few weeks later, [on] the fourth of July, I saw the fireworks, which I haven't seen in over 30 years," she added. "It has given me confidence, for sure."

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The World Health Organization estimates that 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide, with 39 million being blind. According to the WHO, 90 percent of people with visual impairments live in low income environments.

This puts the treatment Kulik has received – the Argus II costs 115,000 euros ($148,959) – out of reach for millions, at least for now.

The potential of this kind of technology to transform the lives of the visually impaired is nevertheless huge, according to Greenberg.

"Our next generation product is aimed at putting an implant in the visual part of the brain... directly interfacing to the brain to restore vision, hopefully to patients who are blind from nearly all causes," he said.

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