Bionic Eye Gets a New Lease on Life

Ex-Neuralink exec Max Hodak’s new company rescues Pixium technology

4 min read

Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter who contributes regularly to IEEE Spectrum.

A photograph of a retina with blood vessels.  A yellow patch is located close to the center of the retina.

Pixium’s flat, wireless 2-by-2-millimeter implant is surgically implanted beneath the retina.

Pixium,

The future of an innovative retinal implant and dozens of its users just got brighter, after Science, a bioelectronics startup run by Neuralink’s cofounder, Max Hodak, acquired Pixium’s technology at the last minute.

Pixium Vision, whose Prima system to tackle vision loss is implanted in 47 people across Europe and the United States, was in danger of disappearing completely until Science stepped in to buy the French company’s assets in April, for an undisclosed amount.

Pixium has been developing Prima for a decade, building on work by Daniel Palanker, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University. The 2-by-2-millimeter square implant is surgically implanted under the retina, where it turns infrared data from camera-equipped glasses into pulses of electricity. These replace signals generated by photoreceptor rods and cones, which are damaged in people suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Early feasibility studies in the E.U. and the United States suggested Prima was safe and potentially effective, but Pixium ran out of money last November before the final results of a larger, multiyear pivotal trial in Europe.

“It’s very important to us to avoid another debacle like Argus II.”

With the financial and legal clock ticking down, the trial data finally arrived in March this year. “And the results from that were just pretty stunning,” says Max Hodak, Science’s founder and CEO, in his first interview since the acquisition.

Although neither Pixium nor Science has yet released the full dataset, Hodak shared with IEEE Spectrumvideos of three people using Prima, each of them previously unable to read or recognize faces due to AMD. The videos show them slowly but fluently reading a hardback book, filling in a crossword puzzle, and playing cards.

“This is legit ‘form vision’ that I don’t think any device has ever done,” says Hodak. Form vision is the ability to recognize visual elements as parts of a larger object. “It’s this type of data that convinced us. And from there we were like, this should get to patients.”

As well as buying the Prima technology, Hodak says that Science will hire the majority of Pixium’s 35 engineering and regulatory staff, in a push to get the technology approved in Europe as quickly as possible.

illustration of the back of a head and person wearing a headset with a blue box underneath and a penny The Prima implant receives visual data and is powered by near-infrared signals beamed from special spectacles.Pixium

Another priority is supporting existing Prima patients, says Lloyd Diamond, Pixium’s outgoing CEO. “It’s very important to us to avoid another debacle like Argus II,” he says, referring to another retinal implant whose manufacturer went out of business in 2022, leaving users literally in the dark.

Diamond is excited to be working with Science, which is based in Silicon Valley with a chip foundry in North Carolina. “They have a very deep workforce in software development, in electronic development, and in biologic research,” he says. “And there are probably only a few foundries in the world that could manufacture an implant such as ours. Being able to internalize part of that process is a very big advantage.”

Hodak hopes that a first-generation Prima product could quickly be upgraded with a wide-angle camera and the latest electronics. “We think that there’s one straight shrink, where we’ll move to smaller pixels and get higher visual acuity,” he says. “After that, we’ll probably move to a 3D electrode design, where we’ll be able to get closer to single-cell resolution.” That could deliver even sharper artificial vision.

In parallel, Science will continue Pixium’s discussions with the FDA in the United States about advancing a clinical trial there.

The success of Prima is critical, says Hodak, who started Science in 2021 after leaving Neuralink, a brain-computer interface company he cofounded with Elon Musk. “Elon can do whatever he wants for as long as he wants, but we need something that can finance future development,” he says. “Prima is big enough in terms of impact to patients and society that it is capable of helping us finance the rest of our ambitions.”

These include a next-generation Prima device, which Hodak says he is already talking about with Palanker, and a second visual prosthesis, currently called the Science Eye. This will tackle retinitis pigmentosa, a condition affecting peripheral vision—the same condition targeted by Second Sight’s ill-fated Argus II device.

“The Argus II just didn’t work that well,” says Hodak. “In the end, it was a pure bridge to nowhere.” Like the Argus II and Prima, the Science Eye relies on camera glasses and an implant, but with the addition of optogenetic therapy. This uses a genetically engineered virus to deliver a gene to specific optic nerve cells in the retina, making them light-sensitive at a particular wavelength. A tiny implanted display with a resolution sharper than an iPhone screen then enables fine control over the newly sensitized cells.

That system is still undergoing animal trials, but Hodak is almost ready to pull the trigger on its first human clinical studies, likely in Australia and New Zealand.

“In the long term, I think precision optogenetics will be more powerful than Prima’s electrical stimulation,” he says. “But we’re agnostic about which approach works to restore vision.”

One thing he does believe vehemently, unlike Musk, is that the retina is the best place to put an implant. Neuralink and Cortigent (the successor company of Second Sight) are both working on prosthetics that target the brain’s visual cortex.

“There’s a lot that you can do in cortex, but vision is not one of them,” says Hodak. He thinks the visual cortex is too complex, too distributed, and too difficult to access surgically to be useful.

“As long as the optic nerve is intact, the retina is the ideal place to think about restoring vision to the brain,” he says. “This is all a question of effect size. If someone has been in darkness for a decade, with no light, no perception, and you can give them any type of visual stimulus, they’re going to be into it. The Pixium patients can intuitively read, and that was really what convinced us that this was worth picking up and pursuing.”

The Conversation (1)
Anjan Saha
Anjan Saha24 May, 2024
M

Proposing to add night vision features to Bionic eyes like nocturnal birds & animals like owl,cat,tiger etc. With Variations of Rod & Cone cells in the eyes. If we are able to invent Bionic eyes with night vision like nocturnal species of Earth we will be able to reduce the cost of Electrical lighting power and instruments . We hope Elon Musk's Neuralink would look

Into the night vision aspects for Bionic eyes or glasses for mankind. Blind person can go for Bionic eyes implants on brain. Normal people can wear Bionic eye night vision Spectacles.