Restoring sight using sound and gene technology with a major grant

A novel method for restoring vision to people with degenerative eye diseases will be tested by researchers at the University of Melbourne, thanks to a significant grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Dr Wei Tong from the School of Physics received a $700K NHMRC Ideas Grant for a three-year research project, Sonogenetic Retinal Prosthesis for Vision Restoration Following Retinal Degeneration. Her collaborators include researchers from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Bionics Institute.

“We intend to evaluate a unique, non-invasive, ‘sonogenetic’ technology that uses a combination of genetic modification and ultrasound stimulation to restore vision,” Dr Tong said.

“We hope this new approach will be safer and more effective than existing retinal implants, with reduced treatment costs and expanded patient eligibility. If so, it could enhance life quality for millions of people.”

Macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa are major causes of vision loss, affecting 198 million people globally. Both diseases damage photoreceptors: light-sensitive cells in the retina – the inside layer at the back of the eyeball.

Human eye - image by Tom from Pixabay Image by Tom from Pixabay

“An implanted device or ‘bionic eye’ can bypass non-functioning photoreceptors and directly stimulate retinal neurons, using the intact visual nerve pathway to transmit signals to the brain,” Dr Tong said.

“Over 500 patients worldwide have received retinal implants. This requires expensive, complex surgery, with risks including infection.

“Alternatively, ‘optogenetic’ methods involve genetic modification of retinal neurons to make them respond to bright, visible light emitted by a wearable device so no surgery is needed. Clinical trials of optogenetics have shown partial vision restoration, but challenges remain.

“The light used in optogenetics can induce phototoxic chemical reactions that inflame and damage cells. Furthermore, the bright light overwhelms functioning photoreceptors, so patients cannot use their residual, natural vision.

“Instead, we propose to restore vision via ‘sonogenetics’, using gene technology to render retinal neurons sensitive to inaudible ultrasound delivered via a wearable device,” she said.

“Sonogenetics avoids phototoxicity and should allow patients to continue using their healthy photoreceptors, maximising their vision.

“An ultrasound transducer converts energy from other forms into inaudible soundwaves,” she said. “Using our patented technology for fabricating ultrasound transducer arrays on a flexible substrate, we will develop a contact lens bearing a ring of transducers.

A diagram showing how sonogenetics works

“The funded project will test the safety and effectiveness of sonogenetics using computer simulations and animal trials.”

The NHMRC Ideas Grants scheme supports researchers at all stages of their careers to undertake innovative research addressing a specific question in health or medicine.

“Winning this national-level grant is a career milestone that affords me the exciting opportunity to mentor postdoctoral research fellows,” Dr Tong said. “I’m thrilled about the prospect of expanding my research group and delving deeper into bionic vision innovations.”Dr Wei Tong

Dr Wei Tong

A senior academic in the Faculty of Science recently received an NHMRC Investigator Grant for research that will translate big data into better health. Read the University’s media release about other NHMRC-funded projects addressing a range of health challenges, including mental health, infectious diseases, cancer, Indigenous health, chronic disease, perinatal care, and newborn health.

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Rebecca Colless

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