Currently there are three primary research programs within IBL@UNSW
Working closely with Cochlear Limited and a team of clinicians on projects that make implants smaller, more effective and more readily implanted.
In 1997, UNSW Professors Gregg Suaning and Nigel Lovell began exploring the possibility of restoring sight to the blind through electrical stimulation of nerves inside the retina – an approach akin to the way that cochlear implants provide an effective treatment of deafness. Over time, their group amassed considerable expertise in their research, and became internationally recognised leaders in the burgeoning field of bionic eyes. Recognising the promise in this new technology and the potential of the team to bring it to fruition, the Australian Government, from 2010-2014, provided $50M to support the development of a bionic eye for the blind.
The outcomes of this important initiative have exceeded expectations. The unique approach taken by the researchers to place a stimulating electrode into a particular location within the eye known as the supra-choroidal space defied many critics. It was shown to be effective in allowing three blind people with advanced cases of a disease known as retinitis pigmentosa (RP) to see spots of light called ‘phosphenes’ when implanted with an early prototype array connected to external electronics. The phosphenes could be arranged to form patterned vision that exchanged darkness for light, and essentially brought blind eyes back to life.
The next step will test a UNSW designed and built, fully implantable device that significantly increases the number of stimulation channels for improved patterned vision. This device is called the Phoenix 99 Bionic Eye System and is currently undergoing its pre-clinical testing at UNSW.
In 2011, Professor Jonathan Clark, a head and neck surgeon from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital teamed with biomedical engineering Professors Gregg Suaning and Nigel Lovell to develop an implantable device to serve as a therapeutic treatment to facial nerve paralysis (FNP).
Sufferers of FNP are unable to close their eyelid – most commonly on one eye only. Eyelid closure failures can result in corneal ulcers and may ultimately lead to blindness. Additionally, FNS is associated with significant social challenges relating to having a highly conspicuous disability.
Professors Clark, Suaning and Lovell sought a solution to the issue that would close the eyelid in a natural motion, hydrate the cornea, and manage the issues relating to cosmesis. This initiated a multi-faceted project called BLINC (Bionic Lid Implant for Natural Closure). BLINC includes research and development of an implantable actuator, a surgically-implanted ‘sling’, externally-supplied power and triggering system, and a network of smart sensors to synchronise the eye closure with the contralateral, healthy eye.