By GREGORY ZELLER //
After 20 years of total blindness, a Port Jefferson woman is beginning to see the light.
Linda Kirk, 67, has been sightless for more than 20 years – but just 10 minutes after a surgically implanted retinal device was activated in her left eye, Kirk was able to distinguish light from dark.
Soon after, she was perceiving movement, even some shapes. And while she described what she was seeing using terms like “puffy white lights” and “vertical cheddar puffs,” that’s light-years beyond the total nothingness she could see since retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that whacks out the retina’s ability to sense light, robbed her of her vision two decades ago.
The Argus II is marketed under the Lindsay Wagner-esque stage name “Bionic Eye.” It was implanted in Kirk’s left retina by Stony Brook Medicine ophthalmologic surgeon Khurram Chaudhary in early September, making Kirk the first “Bionic” woman from Long Island and the New York City region.
One month later, in early October, Chaudhary and his team turned on the “artificial vision” prosthesis, and within minutes, Kirk – who has “seen” only black nothingness since the mid-1990s – was able to tell a dull wall from a bright window, and to make out some shapes.
“Think of a Cheeto,” she said in the exam room.
“That’s me,” Chaudhary replied. “That’s exactly what I look like.”
The lighthearted exchange was fairly spot-on for the big Bionic Eye moment. While it will take Kirk’s brain time to adjust to and interpret what she is seeing – basically, re-learning how to “see” – the ultimate goal is to “allow her to be able to make out doorways [and] windows and outline the people and shapes in front of her,” according to Chaudhary.
Second Sight has made significant progress since it was founded in 1998 by four doctors dedicated to creating a prosthesis that restores vision in patients suffering retinal degenerations like retinitis pigmentosa, which usually manifests first as “night vision,” then saps peripheral vision and ultimately results in total blindness.
The company, which employs 85 in California and at its research facility in Switzerland, was approved for its first Argus I clinical trials in 2002, then turned that knowledge into the second-generation Argus II device, which was first studied in a two-patient pilot in Mexico in 2006 and later in a 30-patient study spanning Europe and the United States. The Argus II retinal prosthesis system – including the implant and specially designed shades wired to a portable processing unit about the size of a cell phone – was approved by the FDA in 2013 and officially debuted in 2015 at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital in England.
This has been a big year for the Bionic Eye. In addition to notching its first Greater New York patient in Kirk, the Argus II retinal prothesis system in 2017 saw its way into Russian, South Korean and Asian markets for the first time.
And this summer, Second Sight announced Bionic Eye implants had qualified for Medicare reimbursements in seven of 12 Medicare Administrative Contractor jurisdictions nationwide, covering 28 states (including New York), two territories and the District of Columbia.