“Really, I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” said Fran Fulton. She’s smiling infectiously though, as she says it.
That’s because Fran Fulton is talking about the moment she first began to see after more than 20 years being blind. “What I see are pixels or electrodes, little blinking lights,” she said.
That might not seem like much to people with full vision but to Fran Fulton it’s everything. She suffers from a disease called retinitis pigmentosa or RP, a degenerative eye disease that caused her to lose all vision in her late 30s. Four mouths ago, at 66, she had a surgery that changed her life. Now, she sees 58 pixels.
“Going from seeing absolutely nothing in front of your face to getting these blinking lights and looking at something and say ‘I see something on the wall – is that a picture?’…. It was very, very exciting,” she said.
Fulton owes her vision to a visual prosthetic made by a company called Second Sight and a talented team of doctors. The entire system is called the Argus II. The company has a simple mission: help the blind to see. So far, it is having some success doing that.
Some 90 patients are using the Argus II to help restore their vision. Patients have a device implanted in their eye which then communicates with a “system” worn by the patient – including glasses with a camera. Vision isn't restored completely though. Fran, for example, still uses her walking cane. But for patients who have lived in the dark for years any vision is seen as miraculous.
It’s the brainchild of billionaire Alfred Mann whose mission is, in many ways, to help cure the world. According to Second Sight’s CEO Robert Greenberg, Mann is a driving force behind this project: “I think that sense of possibility and the capital to make it happen were really what it took."
According to Greenberg Mann’s vision is, simply, to help the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the lame to walk. So far, he’s tackled the first two. (The third is being attempted by Israeli exoskeleton company ReWalk - RWLK.) Another of his companies, Advanced Bionics, made cochlear implants. He’s also spent a billion of his own money trying to cure diabetes.
Curing blindness hasn't come quickly, though., The company was conceived in 1998, but didn't receive FDA approval for use in the U.S. until last year. Now the company is hoping to expand, making its public trading debut on the Nasdaq this week under the ticker EYES, meaning you too can own a piece of the miracle.
CEO Robert Greenberg, himself a trained doctor and engineer, says the goal is to begin treating a wider variety of patients. Right now, the device is only approved to treat RP in the U.S., although it is approved to treat a wider variety of eye diseases in Europe.
“Our hope is with this new financing, with this IPO financing, is to actually take the technology that today is in Fran’s eye… and implant a version of that in the brain, actually in the visual part of the brain, and bypass the optic nerve,” he said. That would mean the company could “help all forms of blindness not just the retinal forms of blindness that we’re helping today.”
Specifically, Second Sight’s next frontier is macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in adults over 50. The company is set to start clinical trials in the UK in the coming weeks.
For Fran, though, 58 pixels are just the beginning. Her greatest hope, she told Yahoo Finance, is to clearly see the faces of her grandchildren.
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