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Joy of blind woman with 'bionic eye' who can tell the time after five years

Published 05/01/2016

Rhian Lewis takes part in a test to read a clock face at the Oxford Eye Hospital
Rhian Lewis takes part in a test to read a clock face at the Oxford Eye Hospital

A blind woman fitted with a "bionic eye" has spoken of her joy after she was able to tell the time for the first time in more than five years.

Rhian Lewis, 49, was given the retinal implant as part of an ongoing trial at Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital.

Surgeons at the Oxford Eye Hospital implanted a tiny electronic chip at the back of her right eye's retina in a bid to help her see.

The mother of two, from Cardiff, has suffered from retinitis pigmentosa - an inherited disorder - since she was five.

The condition causes gradual deterioration of the light-detecting cells (photoreceptors) in the retina, which can lead to blindness..

One in 3,000 to 4,000 people in the UK have the disease, for which there is currently no cure.

Miss Lewis is completely blind in her right eye and has virtually no vision in her left eye.

The implant, made by German firm Retina Implant AG, was placed in Miss Lewis' eye in June in an operation that can last six to eight hours.

During follow-up tests, Miss Lewis was asked to look closely at a large cardboard clock to see if she could tell the time correctly.

She had not been able to tell the time with her right eye in 16 years and for about six years with her left eye.

She said "oh my god" when she realised she had managed to tell that the time was three o'clock.

She said: "Honest to god, that felt like Christmas day."

The implant - a 3mm sq array of around 1,500 light sensors which sends pulsed electrical signals to nerve cells - is connected to a tiny computer that sits underneath the skin behind the ear.

This is powered by a magnetic coil on the skin. From the outside, it looks like a hearing aid.

When the device is first switched on, patients see flashes of light, but over a few weeks the brain learns to convert those flashes into meaningful shapes and objects.

The images can be black and white and grainy but still have the power to transform lives.

Describing the moment the device was turned on, Miss Lewis said: "They said I might not get any sensation and then all of a sudden within seconds there was like this flashing in my eye, which has seen nothing for over 16 years, so it was like, oh my god, wow!"

Miss Lewis was then taken to the cloisters of New College, Oxford, to see if she could make out its features.

She said: "I walked up the street, and the lady from social services said to me to point out anything I thought might or might not be there.

"And the first thing I thought 'there might be something there,' there was a car, a silver car, and I couldn't believe it, because the signal was really strong, and that was the sun shining on the silver car.

"And I was just, well, I was just so excited, I was quite teary.

"The enormity of it didn't hit me until I'd actually got home, thinking 'Oh my god, what have I done? I've actually spotted something out that I haven't been able to do'."

Miss Lewis is able to manipulate the implant using dials on a small wireless power supply held in her hand. This helps her adjust sensitivity, contrast and frequency.

"The problem with having no sight is that you also lose your confidence because you lose your mobility," Miss Lewis said.

"It's simple things like shopping, clothes shopping, you don't know what you look like.

"It's been maybe eight years that I've had any sort of idea of what my children look like.

"Now, when I locate something, especially like a spoon or a fork on the table, it's pure elation. I just get so excited that I've got something right."

The "bionic eye" as a treatment for retinitis pigmentosa has been tested since 2012.

Miss Lewis is the first patient outside of Germany to be implanted with a newer, second-generation device.

Professor Robert MacLaren, who is leading the research at Oxford, said the technology has huge potential benefit .

"It's an amazing process because what Rhian and others are trying to do is reactivate a part of the brain that hasn't been doing anything for the last 10 years or so," he said.

"There is a lot of rehabilitation because basically they are learning to see again."

Minister for life sciences George Freeman said: "This groundbreaking research to create the world's most advanced bionic eye highlights the crucial role of the NHS as a test bed for 21st century medicine."

Miss Lewis's story will be told in Wednesday's episode of Trust Me, I'm a Doctor on BBC2 at 8pm.

Tina Houlihan, chief executive of charity RP Fighting Blindness, which funds research and support for those with retinitis pigmentosa, said: "The advances made in retinal implant technology over the past few years have been extremely encouraging, and we look forward to even greater advances being made in the future as the technology is refined ever further.

"Our patient community is excited that so many different strands of research are proving great potential and such results are being reported. We have been following the progression of retinal implant technology closely and wish this trial every success for the future."

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