Dr. Nigel Lovell, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, University of New South Wales, discusses his work in the design of visual prosthetics devices, the challenges of the field, and the outlook for commercialization of these devices.
IEEEtv: Please describe your field of research.
Dr. Lovell In the past twenty years at biomedical engineering at the University of New South Wales, we’ve been designing technologies for managing disease and wellness. So, appropriate technologies to allow people to age in place, as well as that, we’ve been designing bionics; implantable bionics to help relieve people who have sensory loss. Specifically, we’ve been designing devices for visual impairment, so, people with profound visual loss; we’ve been making a retinal prosthesis, which is a device that is placed inside the eye to help restore a sense of vision in these patients.
IEEEtv: What are the key challenges in the field of visual prosthetics?
Dr. Lovell In the visual prosthesis field, the biggest challenge is that of the interface. There are numerous interfaces when you place a piece of technology inside the body. There’s the device interface, you have to power the device, you have to communicate with the device. There’s a materials interface. You have to put this device in the body safely, and that means you have to look at the biocompatibility of the actual materials you put into the body. Most importantly, there’s the neural interface, so, that’s how you connect the neurons in the eye, the retinal cells, with the electrodes you need to pass current through to actually stimulate those neurons. So, if you look through history at similar sensory prosthesis, for instance, the cochlear device; thirty years ago they started out with a device that had about twenty electrodes that was placed inside the cochlea to restore some sense of hearing to people with profound hearing loss. Thirty years on, they still have a device with twenty-or-so electrodes because it’s very, very difficult to create the technologies to place safely inside the body to increase the electrode count; even though we are fairly sure that if you increased the electrode count you would have a much better sensation of hearing. It’s a similar thing with visual prosthesis. We can make a device, with our current technology, with about one hundred electrodes. And we need disruptive technologies, new technologies, to scale that up to thousands of electrons. There are a few experimental devices that groups around the world have used and produced, but the reality is that those devices will not last the lifetime of a patient. So, they’ll work for a little while, but they won’t work for five years, or ten years. So there is one of the big challenges.
IEEEtv: What is the time frame for commercialization of new developments in your field?
Dr. Lovell The time frame for commercialization is very long in the medical device industry. It depends, very much, on the mind-set of the groups doing the research. Our philosophy, in biomedical engineering at the University of New South Wales, has always been to use materials and approaches that have a proven history of implant inside the body. That means we don’t have to create a whole lot of new evidence to show the safety and efficacy of those materials and certain devices, because we’re very focused on making sure that every one of our technologies make it into humans within the next five to ten years.