Blind Woman Gains Sight with Help of Bionic Eye After Groundbreaking Surgery at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia

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The advanced stage retinitis pigmentosa patient – considered a trailblazer – now paves the way for her grown children and others also battling the same blinding eye disease

Dr. Allen Ho performing retinal implant surgery on Wills Eye Hospital patient, Fran Fulton. Photo:Wm. Romano/Wills Eye Hospital

Wills Eye Hospital is really the go-to place in terms of bringing new ideas and developments to patients.

A 66 year old blind woman, who recently underwent successful surgery to receive the new FDA-approved “Argus® II” Retinal Prosthesis System in her eye, is already exceeding expectations in her progress to see again with the retinal implant often described as the “bionic eye.” The patient, Fran Fulton, was born with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease affecting about 100,000 Americans. Initially diagnosed at 24 years old, Fulton lost all functional vision by the time she was in her late 30’s.

In the breakthrough surgery at Wills Eye Hospital on July 28th 2014, Dr. Allen Ho, who is the Retina Research Director at Wills Eye Hospital and also Fulton’s surgeon, lead a team of surgeons and technicians to implant the microelectrode device on her macula in the back of her eye. The surgery enables her to use wireless technology activated when wearing a pair of specialty glasses with an attached camera and a video processing unit where the images can be transmitted to the brain. The implant does not restore 20/20 vision but rather provides low resolution, pixilated images of what the camera is transmitting. The device, which was developed by “Second Sight Medical Products Inc.,” has received FDA approval and recently became commercially available. It has a price tag of $144,000 excluding surgery and training. It’s covered by some insurance providers but more widespread coverage is still being worked out.

“Both of Fran’s sons also have retinitis pigmentosa so she wants to be a trailblazer by doing something for her children and others afflicted with this blinding disease,” said, Dr. Allen Ho. “Like many other people who have been living in darkness from severe vision loss, Fran has been limited in some ways and this opportunity and technology have been really transformational for her,” added Dr. Ho.

Dr. Ho, Wills Eye Hospital Retina Service Chief, Dr. Carl Regillo, and Wills Eye Ophthalmologist-in-Chief, Dr. Julia Haller all helped evolve the early development of the device and refine the surgical techniques leading to the approval of the implant for the groundbreaking procedure. Drs. Haller, Ho and Regillo were the lead surgeons in implanting some of the first devices in the United States during the clinical trials.

“When I initially put on the glasses, it was absolutely the most breathtaking experience. I was so overwhelmed and excited when I could see again for the first time.” I have not been able to see for more than a decade and to think that in my lifetime I am able to identify objects on the street whether it’s a mailbox or a flower pot, it’s such an incredible feeling. I feel like I’ve been reborn,” said Fran Fulton.

“For all of us who practice medicine, this is a huge step in the way we are able to help patients see and function. Giving them hope is one of the best things about this leading edge surgery and these developments. Ophthalmologists as a whole -- look to Wills Eye for our leadership and our being out there in front with adopting and translating scientific developments into clinical practice. We are really the go-to place in terms of bringing new ideas and developments to patients.” said Dr. Julia A. Haller, Ophthalmologist-in-Chief, Wills Eye Hospital.

What is retinitis pigmentosa?
Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) refers to a group of inherited diseases causing retinal degeneration. The cell-rich retina lines the back inside wall of the eye. It is responsible for capturing images from the visual field. People with RP experience a gradual decline in their vision because photoreceptor cells (rods and cones) die.

What are the symptoms?
Night blindness and blurred vision are often the earliest and most frequent symptoms of RP. RP is typically diagnosed in adolescents and young adults. It is a progressive disorder. The rate of progression and degree of visual loss varies from person to person. Most people with RP are legally blind by age 40.

About Wills Eye Hospital:
Wills Eye Hospital is a global leader in ophthalmology, established in 1832 as the nation’s first hospital specializing in eye care. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks Wills Eye as one of America’s top ophthalmology centers since the survey began and has the most nationally ranked ophthalmologists in the nation. Wills Eye is a premier training site for all levels of medical education. Its resident and post-graduate training programs are among the most competitive in the country. One of the core strengths of Wills is the close connection between innovative research and advanced patient care. Wills provides the full range of primary and subspecialty eye care for improving and preserving sight, including cataract, cornea, retina, emergency care, glaucoma, neuro-ophthalmology, ocular oncology, oculoplastics, pathology, pediatric ophthalmology and ocular genetics, and refractive surgery. Ocular Services include the Wills Laser Correction Center, Low Vision Service, and Diagnostic Center. Its 24/7 Emergency Service is the only one of its kind in the region. Wills Eye also has a network of nine multi-specialty, ambulatory surgery centers throughout the tri-state area. To learn more, please visit http://www.willseye.org

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