Sight could be restored to hundreds of thousands of people around the world with the invention of a bionic eye, developed by Victorian researchers led by a team of scientists from Monash University.
The project will develop a human implant within four years.
The Monash-based team, made up of engineering and computer scientists, together with a team of medical researchers from the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, The Alfred Hospital, and Victorian companies Grey Innovation and MiniFab, will begin work immediately on the $8 million dollar project.
The funding was announced by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, and is one of two projects to receive support under the Australian Research Council's Research in Bionic Vision Science and Technology Initiative, which was developed in response to the Australia 2020 Summit.
The team aims to develop a device that is implanted directly on the region of the brain that processes vision signals (the visual cortex). This will provide treatment for the majority of forms of blindness, including partial blindness.
Head of Electrical & Computer Systems Engineering at Monash University Professor Arthur Lowery said the funding will allow the team to take their concept to the next level.
"We will develop a device that stimulates the brain using hundreds of electrodes. This electrode array can be placed conveniently on the surface of the brain, so the implant is not overly intrusive - a relatively simple and safe procedure," Professor Lowery said.
"The electrodes stimulate the vision areas of the brain mimicking the stimulation they would normally receive through the optic pathway. An advantage of this approach is that it bypasses damaged or dead parts of the visual pathway including the retina and optic nerve. This means that it can cure up to 90 per cent of cases of blindness.
"Also, because the brain has a larger surface area than the retina it is possible to get a much higher resolution image than with retinal implants. It does not destroy the patient's residual vision, it enhances it," Professor Lowery said.
The team also includes Professor Jeffrey Rosenfeld, Head of the Monash Department of Surgery at The Alfred, and experts in sensory neuroscience Professor Marcello Rosa and Associate Professor Ramesh Rajan, both from the Department of Physiology
Monash University Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor & Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research Professor Edwina Cornish said the successful finding bid reflects on the university's expertise in bioengineering
"We are deligted to have been given the financial backing to develop this concept with our partners," Professor Cornish said.
Other members of the team include founder of micro-manufacturing company MiniFab Dr Erol Harvey, Former CEO of Dynamic Hearing Elaine Saunders, and mechanical and aerospace engineer Professor James Friend.