I wrote last week about Second Sight’s European Marketing Approval for the Argus II “artificial retina”.  What this news also stands for is the success of collaboration as a route to innovation.

The Artificial Retina Project (“Restoring Sight through Science”) through which Argus II was developed is a collaborative effort between six United States Department of Energy (DOE) research institutions, 4 universities and private industry.

Each offers unique scientific knowledge and specialist expertise, without which it is unlikely the project (that is continuing with the development of a more advanced Argus III artificial retina) would have been successful.

I’ve listed the collaborators below and as recorded on the DOE website, what they bring to the Artificial Retina Project.

DOE National Labs:

  • Argonne National Laboratory – Performs packaging and hermetic-seal research to protect the prosthetic device from the salty eye environment, using their R&D 100 award-winning ultrananocrystalline diamond technology.
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) - Uses microfabrication technology to develop thin, flexible neural electrode arrays that conform to the retina’s curved shape. LLNL also uses advanced packaging technology and system-level integration to interconnect the electronics package and the thin-film electrode array.
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory – Measures the effect of increasing the number of electrodes on the quality of the electrical signals used to stimulate the surviving neural cells in the retina.
  • Sandia National Laboratories - Develops microelectromechanical (MEMS) devices and high-voltage subsystems for advanced implant designs. These include microtools, electronics packaging, and application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to allow high-density interconnects and electrode arrays.
  • Brookhaven National Laboratory – Performs neuroscience imaging studies of the Model 1 retinal prosthesis.

Universities:

  • Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California - Provides medical direction and performs preclinical and clinical testing of the electrode array implants. Leads the Artificial Retina Project.
  • University of California, Santa Cruz – Performs bidirectional telemetry for wireless communication and chip design for stimulating the electrode array.
  • North Carolina State University - Performs electromagnetic and thermal modeling of the device to help determine how much energy can be used to stimulate the remaining nondiseased cells.
  • California Institute of Technology – Performs real-time image processing of miniature camera output and provides optimization of visual perception.

In October 2004, Second Sight Medical Products and the DOE signed a Co-Operative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in which the above institutions agreed to share intellectual property and royalties from their research, with Second Sight chosen to be the commercial partner.  As part of the CRADA, Second Sight obtained a limited, exclusive license to the inventions developed during the DOE Retinal Prosthesis Project.

You can find more information about the history of this fascinating project on the Artificial Retina Project website, that also has links to several patient stories from around the world.

The Artificial Retina Project is a case study on the success of collaboration.  Whether such an ambitious project that was funded by the US Government would ever have taken place in the private sector is the question that comes to my mind?  Would a private company have been able to harness the intellectual power of 10 research institutions in this way?

If not, then do governments have a role to play in biomedical innovation by drawing partners together so that advances in basic research can be applied to new products, whether they be new drugs or novel devices?

And if you agree that governments do have a role to play what should be the extent of government funding?  In the case of artificial retina, the DOE has funded this since 1999, with its contribution rising from $500K to $7M per year. Those numbers may also be direct costs, and not reflect the cost of investments in buildings, research facilities etc.

I’d be interested in any thoughts you would like to share on this.

 Artificial Retina Project shows power of collaboration to bring new products to market

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