When Glendale resident Mark Humayun first entered medical school, he planned for a career in neurosurgery. Then his grandmother began to lose her eyesight from diabetes complications, and he changed his course of study to ophthalmology.
Decades later and with a team of patients and colleagues, he invented the Argus II, the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved retinal implant that restores some sight for people who are blind.
Humayun was recently named as one of eight people nationwide to receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. He had planned to receive the medal from President Obama on Friday, but the White House postponed the ceremony because of a severe snow storm expected to hit Washington, D.C., so Humayun will receive the medal at a later date.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, the USC professor said the honor is “amazing.”
“It’s a real testament to this whole project and the number of people that have worked on it,” he said.
The Argus II works through a pair of glasses worn by blind patients. The glasses contain a camera that sends information wirelessly to an implant located in and around the patient’s eye.
The device turns the information it collects from the camera into tiny electrical pulses that jump-start the blind eye.
The result gives those who are blind an ability to see outlines of large objects such as doorways, tables or silhouettes of people.
“We work very hard, but the reward is no greater than the patient who is able to see the outline of their son for the first time. Or be able to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July after 25 years or be able to see the lights on the Christmas tree after 30 years,” Humayun said.
He wants to develop the device even further so people would be able to recognize faces, read and see colors.
“We thought of the idea in 1987 and that was about the time when my grandmother was experiencing the [vision] issues,” he said.
His work to develop the technology began with initial tests on patients in 1992 when they would insert a tiny wire electrode into a blind patient’s eye while they were awake in an operating room and wait for the patient to report what they saw.
“They could see the electrical pulse. Based on that, we started to design and develop the implant,” he said.
In 2002, Humayun and his team inserted the first long-term implant that they could leave in the eye.
The current model was approved by the FDA in 2013, and Humayun estimates that hundreds of people have used the device in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
As for Humayun’s grandmother who passed away, he said, “Losing her sight robbed her of the joy of living. A lot of people can deal with it or work with no vision. It was so critical to her. It made the last few years very difficult. I think she would be very proud and very happy.”
Kelly Corrigan, firstname.lastname@example.org