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Monday, 16 September 2019

The graphene-based retinal implants to restore vision awarded a “la Caixa” Health Research Grant

by Àlex Argemí

“La Caixa” Foundation has announced today the winners of the second edition of “la Caixa” Health Research Grants. IFAE, ICFO, Barraquer Foundation and Institut de la Vision (University of Sorbonne) are the partner institutions forming the i-VISION research consortium led by the ICN2 and awarded with 1 million euros. The three-year project will design the next generation of retinal prostheses using graphene-based electrodes to provide artificial vision to patients blinded by retinal degeneration.

The project Adaptive Retinal Implant Technology for Vision Restoration (i-VISION), led by the Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia (ICN2), has been awarded a “la Caixa” Health Research Grant. This is the second edition of a call aimed at fostering biomedical and health research projects with high social impact. The grants consist of 1 million euros for research consortia, as is the case with i-VISION, and half a million for individual institutions. A total of 22 projects have been selected out of 632 proposals submitted to the “la Caixa” call, covering areas such as oncology, infectious diseases and neuroscience. The grantees have now three years to turn their projects into meaningful results.

The goal of the i-VISION project is to develop a retinal prosthesis technology capable of providing high-acuity artificial vision to people blinded by outer retina layer diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration. In Spain, over 15,000 and 700,000 people are affected by retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration, respectively (1). In spite of the progressive degeneration of photoreceptor cells caused by these retinal diseases, the neurons responsible for conveying information to the brain remain alive. Retinal prosthesis systems process images of the outside wold recorded by a camera and stimulate these neurons by means of electrodes to re-create vision. However, the quality of restored vision in current retinal prostheses is quite limited.

The i-VISION project aims to improve this technology with the work of an interdisciplinary team composed of experts from research and clinical centres. The tools to overcome the difficulties of producing such innovative retinal prosthesis are the expertise in nanomaterials, electronics and microscopy provided by the ICN2, the Institut de Física d’Altes Energies (IFAE) and the Institut de Ciències Fotòniques (ICFO), three institutions recognised with the Severo Ochoa Excellence Award and founding members of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST), together with the physiological knowledge and clinical know-how brought by the Barraquer Foundation and the Institut de la Vision (University of Sorbonne). ICREA Prof. Jose Antonio Garrido, Group Leader and Vice-Director at the ICN2, is the Project Leader of the research and stresses that “we will seek to implement thousands of small-diameter electrodes and increasingly more sophisticated stimulation protocols that can adapt to the patients’ needs”.

The electrode material interfacing with retinal neurons will be based on graphene, a nanomaterial that will enable the use of more and smaller high-performing electrodes capable of bidirectional (recording and stimulation) communication with the retina. The microelectronics of the prosthesis will implement closed-loop adaptive stimulation strategies and novel wireless technology to power the implant and transmit the electrical stimulus. Advanced in vitro and in vivo imaging and recording techniques will be used to create a personalized map of retina-visual cortex interconnectivity, and thereby optimize the visual acuity restored by the retinal prosthesis.

This work is the follow up of the THEIA project, under which the ICN2, IFAE, ICFO and Barraquer Ophthalmological Center set the basis of this new generation of retinal prostheses with the funding of two successive BIST Ignite grants. The developed technology is expected to provide immediate benefits to retinal prosthesis patients, and may later serve as a standard bearer for the much broader field of neuroprosthetics.