Those of us fortunate to have good health take so many things for granted, not the least of which is our ability to see. But, according to the World Health Organization, there are 39 million people worldwide who are blind, and another 246 million who are visually impaired. Any therapy, any device, that can help change that is truly worthy of celebration.
Dr. Mark Humayun: Photo courtesy USC
That’s why we are celebrating the news that Professor Mark Humayun has been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s top technology honor, by President Obama.
Humayun, a researcher at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and a CIRM grantee, is being honored for his work in developing an artificial retina, one that enables people with a relatively rare kind of blindness to see again.
But we are also celebrating the potential of his work that we are funding that could help restore sight to millions of people suffering from the leading cause of blindness among the elderly. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, let’s talk about the invention that has earned him this prestigious award. It’s called the Argus II and it can help people with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative disease that slowly destroys a person’s vision. It affects around 100,000 Americans.
The Argus II uses a camera mounted on glasses that send signals to an electronic receiver that has been implanted inside the eye. The receiver then relays those signals through the optic nerve to the brain where they are interpreted as a visual image.
In a story posted on the USC website, USC President C. L. Max Nikias praised Humayun’s work:
“He dreamed the impossible: to help the blind see. With fearless imagination, bold leadership and biomedical expertise, he and his team made that dream come true with the world’s first artificial retina. USC is tremendously proud to be Professor Humayun’s academic home.”
At CIRM we are tremendously proud to be funding the clinical trial that Humayun and his team are running to find a stem cell therapy for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in the world. It’s estimated that by 2020 more than 6 million Americans will suffer from AMD.
Humayun’s team is using embryonic stem cells to produce the support cells, or RPE cells, needed to replace those lost in AMD. We recently produced this video that highlights this work, and other CIRM-funded work that targets vision loss.
In a statement released by the White House honoring all the winners, President Obama said:
“Science and technology are fundamental to solving some of our nation’s biggest challenges. The knowledge produced by these Americans today will carry our country’s legacy of innovation forward and continue to help countless others around the world. Their work is a testament to American ingenuity.”
Which is why we are honored to be partners with Humayun and his team in advancing this research and, hopefully, helping find a treatment for millions of people who dream of one day being able to see again.