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Michigan man among 1st in US to get 'bionic eye'

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) - A degenerative eye disease slowly robbed Roger Pontz of his vision.

Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a teenager, Pontz has been almost completely blind for years. Now, thanks to a high-tech procedure that involved the surgical implantation of a "bionic eye," he's regained enough of his eyesight to catch small glimpses of his wife, grandson and cat.

"It's awesome. It's exciting - seeing something new every day," Pontz said during a recent appointment at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center. The 55-year-old former competitive weightlifter and factory worker is one of four people in the U.S. to receive an artificial retina since the Food and Drug Administration signed off on its use last year.

The facility in Ann Arbor has been the site of all four such surgeries since FDA approval. A fifth is scheduled for next month.

Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited disease that causes slow but progressive vision loss due to a gradual loss of the light-sensitive retinal cells called rods and cones. Patients experience loss of side vision and night vision, then central vision, which can result in near blindness.

Not all of the 100,000 or so people in the U.S. with retinitis pigmentosa can benefit from the bionic eye. An estimated 10,000 have vision low enough, said Dr. Brian Mech, an executive with Second Sight Medical Products Inc., the Sylmar, Calif.-based company that makes the device. Of those, about 7,500 are eligible for the surgery.

The artificial implant in Pontz's left eye is part of a system developed by Second Sight that includes a small video camera and transmitter housed in a pair of glasses.

Images from the camera are converted into a series of electrical pulses that are transmitted wirelessly to an array of electrodes on the surface of the retina. The pulses stimulate the retina's remaining healthy cells, causing them to relay the signal to the optic nerve.

The visual information then moves to the brain, where it is translated into patterns of light that can be recognized and interpreted, allowing the patient to regain some visual function.

When wearing the glasses, which Pontz refers to as his "eyes," he can identify and grab his cat and figure out that a flash of light is his grandson hightailing it to the kitchen.

The visual improvement is sometimes startling for Pontz and his wife, Terri, who is just as amazed at her husband's progress as he is.

"I said something I never thought I'd say: 'Stop staring at me while I'm eating,'" Terri Pontz said.

She drives her husband the nearly 200 miles from tiny Reed City, Mich., to Ann Arbor for check-ups and visits with occupational therapist Ashley Howson, who helps Roger Pontz reawaken his visual memory and learn techniques needed to make the most of his new vision.

At the recent visit, Howson handed Pontz white and black plates, instructed him to move them back and forth in front of light and dark backgrounds and asked that he determine their color.

Back home, Terri Pontz helps her husband practice the techniques he learns in Ann Arbor.

For them, the long hours on the road and the homework assignments are a blessing.

"What's it worth to see again? It's worth everything," Terri Pontz said.

The artificial retina procedure has been performed several-dozen times over the past few years in Europe, and the expectation is that it will find similar success in the U.S., where the University of Michigan is one of 12 centers accepting consultations for patients.

Candidates for the retinal prosthesis must be 25 or older with end-stage retinitis pigmentosa that has progressed to the point of having "bare light" or no light perception in both eyes.

Dr. Thiran Jayasundera, one of two physicians who performed the 4.5-hour surgery on Roger Pontz, is scheduled to discuss his experiences with the retinal prosthesis process during a meeting of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery on Friday in Boston. He calls it a "game-changer."

Pontz agrees: "I can walk through the house with ease. If that's all I get out of this, it'd be great."

Join the discussion

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galsal April 24 2014 at 12:29 AM

What a miracle of modern science and technology. I am happy for all that this new bionic eye will help. I can't imagine what a loss it would be if I couldn't see as I read a lot and that is my escape into a land of imagination and great joy.

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1 reply
blueeggu galsal April 26 2014 at 3:31 AM


I hope those glimpses turn into beautiful long visions!

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Gigi April 23 2014 at 1:49 PM

I am blind, can I get a bionic eye? It is difficult to be a widow living alone and not have sight to go outside, to walk, to read, to even watch TV and see more than a body.

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2 replies
mp2657 Gigi April 23 2014 at 2:39 PM

please join a web site like penpalsnow.com where you can make friends and your blindness wont matter to anyone..

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FIESTA & SIESTA Gigi April 23 2014 at 4:09 PM

You should! You are doing great reading things online! Just imagine what you could do with a bionic eye!

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Carol Lopez April 23 2014 at 1:37 PM

MD eyes runs in my family. One of my brother's deepest sadness was that he could not see his beautiful wife of sixty years when she passed from this life. Regardless of how it looks, works, feels, I would have loved to get this "eye" for my brother before he passed. Thank you for this noble work.

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rob4ever22 April 23 2014 at 1:34 PM

That is so cool...Wonder if Insurance covers it!

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dickn2000b April 23 2014 at 12:56 PM

As crude as this implant is, as poorly as it works...It does work! And although what the patient sees is not the same image a sighted person sees, he does receive an image that he is able to interpret. And this is the first attempt, the first iteration. From here the technology will only improve.

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2 replies
CHRIS dickn2000b April 23 2014 at 1:22 PM

All I can say is WOW WOW WOW. I use to camp years ago with a family who had a son my sons age, probably 45yrs old by now, and he had the same thing. The kids were sensitive to this and all acted as a guide for him around the campsite. I had not thought of him in years. I wonder how he is and hope he has knowledge of this. Thanks.

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jrnyc21 dickn2000b April 23 2014 at 2:22 PM

I am blind in one eye, due to a surgical error during simple (ha) cataract surgery. I understand it is just one eye, but my life is now consumed with terror every day that something will happen to the remaining eye, as that prescription has weakened. And I simply can't see very well, the human body was meant to function with 2 eyes.
I would pay anything for help. I plan to try after having read this, but I don't have the disease mentioned and have a feeling they won't work with me. If anyone has information on where in Europe this is done please let me know.

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Tammy April 23 2014 at 12:56 PM

I am so happy for not only this man but his family. This is a wonderful blessing.

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dwtomczyk April 23 2014 at 12:49 PM

let me know when bionic hair comes out

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3 replies
phrankly April 23 2014 at 12:40 PM

WOW ! how great that would be.

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Gina April 23 2014 at 12:29 PM

That is amazing. What a huge breakthrough for people who are blind. My Dad had Glaucoma and he always said he would rather be deaf than blind because you can still drive a car, read a book, see your loved ones. My Dad had Glaucoma for 30 years before he passed away in 1999. He tried everything there was available to keep his eyesight going.

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Ernie April 23 2014 at 11:57 AM

The entire world of medicine is just beyond belief. Now that the "bionic eye" door is open, maybe it won't be long before the mature into something really close to a real human eye - look at the progress of computers!. I have POHS in my left eye, but thank God they caught it in time to stop it before I went blind in one eye. Wish more of my money (taxes, etc) went to medicine instead of feeding and housing felons in places better than what I have ever had. Again, pray for "warp speed" in this and other areas of medicine.

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1 reply
Carol Lopez Ernie April 23 2014 at 1:41 PM

Thanks Ernie! Your heart is where it should be!!!

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