Photograph courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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Sheila Nirenberg, 2013 MacArthur Fellow.

Photograph courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

MacArthur Genius Working to Bring Sight to the Blind

Sheila Nirenberg didn't think a prosthetic eye was possible. Now, she's seeing the light of the future.

"This year's class of MacArthur Fellows is an extraordinary group of individuals who collectively reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity," said Cecilia Conrad, vice president of the MacArthur Fellows program, in a press release announcing the 2013 recipients on Wednesday. "Their stories should inspire."

Over the next few days, we will profile some of these innovative people in this series, "Interview With a Genius."

Sheila Nirenberg, a 2013 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" grants, has a mission: She's working toward an affordable, widely available prosthetic eye for people suffering from eye diseases like macular degeneration.

The prosthetic is part Google glass, part camera, and part gene-translator—and some hope it will revolutionize the treatment of macular degeneration and blindness.

Not a Glass Eye

Normal vision is a three-step process that involves an image, the retina, and the brain.

When you look at an object, reflected light delivers its image to the retina. Photoreceptors in the retina take the image and transform it into a code composed of unique sets of electrical pulses—Morse code for the mind. Then those signals are sent to the brain.

In a December 2011 TED talk, Nirenberg spoke of the complexity of the patterns, which change every millisecond as new images come into your eye.

"The pattern of pulses is changing all the time because the world you're looking at is changing all the time, too," said Nirenberg during the talk.

But what happens when that process falls apart? Say, for someone with a retinal disease like macular degeneration?

"The photoreceptors die," she explained. "All the cells around them die. And then one day, the only cells you have left are the output cells, the ones that send signals to the brain."

But because there is no image coming in, the output cells simply sit there without a job to do.

"They aren't getting any inputs, so the person's brain isn't getting any visual information," Nirenberg said during her TED talk. "That is, he or she is blind."

Rewiring the Eye

That's where Nirenberg's innovative prosthetic eye comes in.

Nirenberg thought if she could just rewire the eye's output cells so that they started translating images into electrical signals, those signals could be sent to the brain and vision would be restored.

"I was talking with a student about it and jumped out of my chair. I knew. I knew how to make a prosthetic device. I had all the pieces."

The idea? Creating a coding and translator device that would take the images being processed, encode them into electrical pulses, and then send them to the brain.

The patient would have to undergo a brief gene-therapy session in order to redirect the output cells in their eye—normally used to transmit image signals to the brain—into also accepting signals from a camera.

"We shoot a compound into the eye that will get expressed in the output cells," Nirenberg said. "The person will wear a sort of camera that has an encoder device that takes the information from the camera and translates that into the retina's code."

A tiny processor—about the size of the one in a cell phone—helps in the process.

And voila: a person who previously had cloudy vision at best would suddenly not just be able to discern between light and dark, but could actually see again.

Not Just for "Zillionaires"

Nirenberg's reasons for creating this device are relatively simple.

"I felt like it was my responsibility," she said, noting that she had already done most of the hard work of coding the electrical pulses. "It doesn't involve surgery, [which is] less daunting for patients, and hopefully [it's] cheaper to make," she said.

For now, Nirenberg's focus is on raising money so she can bring the device through initial clinical trials and the Food and Drug Administration approval process.

The MacArthur genius grant money would be a small step in that direction—Nirenberg estimates that the cost of getting the device from research and development to market is about $6 million. That hasn't stopped Nirenberg, who wants to get a prosthetic eye out to the millions of people suffering from, or at risk of, blindness.

Her ultimate goal for the prosthetic eye? That "it won't only be for zillionaires."

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