Retinal Engineering Center (REC)
William R. Freeman, M.D., Professor of Ophthalmology
Gabriel A. Silva, Ph.D., Associate Prof. & Jacobs Faculty Fellows Professor of Bioengineering
The mission of the Retinal Engineering Center (REC) is to combine the wealth of Engineering and Medical expertise and resources in the San Diego area to develop a retinal implant capable of restoring vision to patients suffering any of several retinal diseases. With around 1 million people possessing severe vision loss in America alone, and another 1.5 million having some degree of loss, the need for such a device is paramount. This is especially true given the growing elderly population, which is particularly prone to the most common form of retinal disease: age- related macular degeneration. The elderly are not the only people at risk, though. Improved retinal prostheses will also benefit those suffering the second most common retinal disease: retinitis pigmentosa. This disease affects all age groups, notably children possessing a genetic predisposition.
Current retinal implants, utilizing conventional neuronal technologies, have had limited success in restoring useful vision despite 10 years of work and millions of dollars in funding. Moreover, most of these implants lack light-sensitive components, instead relying on external cameras to capture images and then stimulate the retina. This approach does not make use of the eye’s natural ability to track objects and requires patients to wear special equipment. The REC will take advantage of unique light-detecting and neural interfacing nanotechnologies developed at UCSD. These technologies are capable of addressing several fundamental challenges plaguing present retinal implants, while harnessing the eye’s natural capacities.
The unique nature of this retinal implant will require interdisciplinary collaborations through the REC between several scientists and engineers in the Jacob’s School of Engineering and the School of Medicine. These collaborations will include diverse areas of research including nanophotonics, microfabrication and medical device packaging, power and wireless telemetry, neuronal stimulation and biological interfaces.
The REC will be collaborating with the Jacobs Retina Center (JRC) in the Department of Ophthalmology, which will provide the facilities for pre-clinical basic research and animal models, as well as patient clinical trials and implant evaluation. The JRC is equipped with state of the art facilities for retinal imaging and functional physiology, as well as full biological and retinal engineering laboratories and animal model facilities.
The REC intends to produce a high density, high resolution, long-term visual prosthesis that enables blind patients to perform basic tasks. The effort will provide the UC San Diego community an opportunity to directly contribute to a medical device improving quality of life for patients of all ages. This will help motivate student involvement and prepare young bioengineers for jobs in the medical industry. In addition, the project will create opportunities for patenting technologies developed at UCSD. Such intellectual property can generate significant income for the university.