Health Beat: Bionic eye breakthrough — helping the blind to see

Health Beat: Bionic eye breakthrough — helping blind to see

DURHAM, N.C. - Larry and Jerry Hester's love story spans more than four decades, but just after their 10th anniversary, a genetic disorder known as retinitis pigmentosa robbed Larry of his sight.

"If my sight was ever completely restored, the very first thing I would want to do would be to see my wife," he said.

Hester's now closer to that reality: he's a candidate for a new bionic eye at Duke University Hospital.

"We can, for the first time, restore vision that was once considered to be permanently lost," said Dr. Paul Hahn, retinal ophthalmologist at Duke Eye Center.

A miniature video camera picks up images that are sent to a micro-processor and wirelessly transmitted to a computer chip in the eye.

"It stimulates a part of the retina that's still healthy and provides flashes of light which the patient can interpret as an image," Hahn said. "So they're not going to see the way you or I see."

Patients have to learn to see in a new way. Hester will see high contrast items of light and dark and identify movement. And maybe will even be able to see his grandchildren for the first time.

"Words really can't express how exciting it is and how thrilling it is," Hester said.

The bionic eye known as the Argus II is now being offered in 13 sites around the country and is currently only approved for those with retinitis pigmentosa, but in the future, it could help restore other forms of blindness.

The gift of sight comes with a price tag of about $145,000, but nationally, Medicare has approved reimbursement.

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