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Two Blindness Breakthroughs

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Every five seconds, someone in the world goes blind. Six million people in the United States are losing or have lost their sight to eye disease. By 2020, that number is expected to double. But researchers may be on the trail to a cure for blindness. Now, two new eye breakthroughs that are helping the blind see.

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Mike May is a champion downhill skier. He is also blind. At age three, a chemical explosion destroyed his left eye and blinded his right.

"Attitudes are really key in how you go forward with being able to see or not," May told Ivanhoe.

May doesn't let vision loss slow him down. He's the creator of a GPS device for the blind. He's also one of the first to get an experimental treatment to restore vision developed by cognitive and neurobiological imaging experts.

"Mike's case is very important," Brian Wandell, Ph.D., the director of the Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging Department at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., said. "It's one of a series of cases because he lost his vision at a time when he was very young."

May's cornea was replaced with a donor cornea. Corneal and surrounding limbal stem cells were then transplanted around it. Today May can see color and shapes, but can't make out details.

"I don't see depth perception so I can't tell if there's curb or a step," May explained. "What I see is gray sidewalk merges into gray street."

"So it was maybe half a miracle," Dr. Wandell said. "We got the first half and he's helping us with the second half for somebody else."

Another blindness breakthrough developed by ophthalmologists: an artificial retina. Patients like Kathleen Blake wear a special pair of glasses with a camera, which captures images and transmits them to the retinal implant. The implant then creates a black and white picture and sends it through the optic nerve, to the brain, mimicking what your retina would normally do.

"So when you first implant this device, it isn't like they can immediately see," Mark Humayun, MD, an ophthalmologist at the Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Calif., said. "It takes a while for the brain to get used to it."

"I can pick up doorways, maybe the edge, the line, the edge of the door," Blake described. "I can pick up a grass edge and walk on the sidewalk."

This gets us one step closer to a cure for blindness. The artificial retina is currently being tested on patients with retinitis pigmentosa, but doctors hope it will one-day help with other diseases, like macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness for people over 55.

The Materials Research Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.

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