Health and Science

Blind patients in England are going to get bionic eyes in 2017

Michael Siward | Moment | Getty Images

NHS England has announced that it is to provide funding for more testing of Argus II, otherwise known as the 'bionic eye'.

Ten patients with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) will be given surgery that will see an implant placed in their retina, NHS (National Health Service) England said on Thursday. RP is an inherited disease which results in blindness.

A camera on a pair of glasses will send wireless signals to nerves that control sight, with these signals then decoded by patients' brains as flashes of light.

U.S. based Second Sight Medical Products is behind the Argus II system.

The operations will happen at Manchester Eye Hospital and London's Moorfields Eye Hospital in 2017.

The impact of the system on those already using it has been significant. Keith Hayman was one of three people fitted with the Argus II during a trial. Hayman, 68, has been blind for 25 years.

"Having spent half my life in darkness, I can now tell when my grandchildren run towards me and make out lights twinkling on Christmas trees," he said in a statement on Thursday.

"I would be talking to a friend who might have walked off and I couldn't tell and kept talking to myself," he added. "This doesn't happen anymore, because I can tell when they have gone. These little things make all the difference to me."

Paulo Stanga, who works at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, performed Hayman's surgery.

"I'm delighted that our pioneering research has provided the evidence to support NHS England's decision to fund the bionic eye for the first time for patients," he said on Thursday.

"It surpassed all of our expectations when we realized that one of the RP patients in Manchester using the bionic eye could identify large letters for the first time in his adult life," he added.

NHS England said the testing would be funded via its Commissioning through Evaluation scheme, which has been set up to collect evidence on treatments showing "significant promise for the future." After the procedures take place, patients will be assessed for one year to see how the Argus II is improving their quality of life.

"This highly innovative NHS-funded procedure shows real promise and could change lives," Jonathan Fielden, director of specialized commissioning and deputy national medical director for NHS England said. "The NHS has given the world medical innovations ranging from modern cataract surgery, new vaccines and hip replacements," he added.

"Now once again the NHS is at the forefront of harnessing ground-breaking science for the benefit patients in this country."