The Observatory

Q&A with Dr Penny Allen

In the second interview of our Q&A series, Vision 2020 Australia talks to Dr. Penny Allen about the amazing Bionic Eye Project currently running in pilot phase. Dr. Allen is an ophthalmologist in the medical and vitreoretinal unit at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital (RVEEH); a medical retina and vitreoretinal surgeon on staff at The Alfred; and Program Leader, Surgical Program at Bionic Vision Australia. She is also an associate at the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

  • Dr. Allen, can you tell us about the Bionic Vision Australia, Bionic Eye Project currently underway?

Bionic Vision Australia is a national research consortium working to develop a bionic eye that can restore a sense of vision to people living with profound vision loss. The team is developing two devices: the wide-view device for assisting with navigation and greater mobility and independence; and the high-acuity bionic eye, which we hope will allow people to recognise faces and read large print.

As part of this development, an early prototype bionic eye with 24 electrodes has also been developed and implanted in three patients last year. All three patients are progressing well and helping us to understand more about how the retina and the brain respond to electrical stimulation. This is vital information for the development of the full, wide-view and high-acuity devices.

  • How does the bionic eye work?

Generally speaking, the bionic vision system consists of a camera, attached to a pair of glasses, which transmits visual information to a microchip implanted in the retina. Electrodes on the implanted chip convert these signals into electrical impulses to stimulate cells in the retina that connect to the optic nerve. These impulses are then passed down along the optic nerve to the vision processing centres of the brain, where they are interpreted as an image.

  • What were some of the reactions patients in pilot phase experienced in having had the bionic eye prototype implanted?

All of our patients are remarkable individuals, motivated by the desire to make a contribution for the benefit of the broader vision impaired community, rather than by their own desire to regain a sense of vision.

Having spent months and months planning and preparing for our first implant surgeries, I felt quite confident going into theatre. Of course, we were all very relieved when all had gone to plan and our patients were recovering well.

The first time we switched on Dianne’s implant was a very exciting moment for the whole team. Perhaps the calmest of all, was Dianne herself! Similarly, our further two ‘switch on’ moments brought much excitement and relief to all involved.

At this stage, all of our three patients consistently report seeing shapes, lines, and ‘flashes’ of light, in line with the information we are providing to the implant. This really does give us confidence that we are on track with our development and that our approach to bionic vision technology has great potential to make a significant impact on people’s lives.

  • In the future what types of patients will be able to have the commercialised bionic eye?

The patient groups we are targeting with this technology are retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration. Both are degenerative conditions of the retina, meaning vision loss progresses over time and can lead to complete blindness. To start with, we are working with patients who have profound vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa. We hope to develop the technology further so it can have broader application, but for now we are concentrating on these two conditions.

  • What has been the highlight for you during the project to date?

The highlights of the project to date have been meeting and interacting with the patients who entered the 24 channel trial. It has been wonderful to meet such an altruistic group and to continue to work with them. Obviously the successful implantation of their devices was also great and the ongoing collaboration with the different groups in BVA has been fascinating and rewarding.

  • Who is collaborating on the project and what is your role?

To develop a medical implant with this level of complexity is no easy task. The Bionic Vision Australia team brings together a range of experts in many different fields, from ophthalmology to biomedical engineering, vision neuroscience, materials engineering and electrical and electronic engineering, as well as the best of preclinical and clinical practice. Many people working on this project were involved in the development of the bionic ear, or Cochlear implant, and are now applying their skills to the field of bionic vision.

My role is to lead the surgical team in developing techniques for implantation of the devices. It is a privilege to work with so many talented people, and of course, with our first three participants in the bionic eye pilot study.

The team functions as an unincorporated joint venture between the Bionics Institute, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, NICTA, the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales. The National Vision Research Institute, the University of Western Sydney and the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital are supporting participants.

  • What led you to specialise as an ophthalmologist, and a medical retina and vitreoretinal surgeon?

I was always interested in surgery but during my junior resident years I worked with some wonderful ophthalmologists at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and I realised that the surgery was very precise and challenging but the impact on the patients significant. I also liked the interaction between eyes and various other specialities eg endocrinology. Work in the area of the retina is always different and stimulating, particularly the retinal detachments and trauma patients. They are patients that you see for a long time and hence we have a close relationship with them.

  • And finally, on a personal note…

I am still outraged that Geelong lost to Hawthorn in 2008 and 1989 but am feeling confident about being in another “odd year”!