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Fed: Trial bionic eye could be just two years away

By Melissa Jenkins
22 Apr 2009 6:22 PM

CANBERRA, April 22 AAP - A trial bionic eye could be just two years away after a $50 million funding injection from the federal government.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd released his response to the 2020 summit in Perth on Wednesday.

He promised $50.7 million of grants over four years into the development of a bionic eye - a process to be administered by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

A bionic eye would help people who have a degenerative eye diseases, like age-related macular degeneration (the loss of central vision) or diseases, like retinitis pigmentosa (a group of genetic eye conditions).

It would initially be used as a navigation aid for people who are completely blind and as the technology improves, it could then help people read large print and recognise faces.

Bionic Vision Australia (BVA), based in Melbourne, brings together the talents of the country's leading biomedical engineers and researchers who were involved in the development of the Cochlear ear implant.

BVA director Tony Burkitt says the group is carrying out bio-capability and safety studies into a bionic eye and will bid for a slice of the federal funding.

"We expect to be able to have our first trial implant within two years of getting the funding," he told AAP.

"We expect within four to five years of being able to have something that's to be commercialised and used clinically."

Professor Burkitt said the federal funding would push the development of a bionic eye forward but more capital would be required to take the project into commercialisation.

"This is really the base, core funding that enables us to do the research and take it through that testing in patients and making sure that it's clinically viable," he said.

The funding would enable Australia to catch up to advances in the United States and Germany.

"This is the sort of funding we need to be competitive internationally," he said.

"Our experience with the Cochlear implant indicates that it's the technology and ability to be able to implement that in a clinical setting, which could give us the edge.

"Cochlear Limited wasn't the first company to bring out a bionic ear, yet they dominate the world market today."

Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr said the investment would help Australia stay at the forefront of bionic research and commercialisation.

"Other significant benefits will flow from further research into medical devices and the mechanical and software systems used to control them," he said.

The grants program is still under development and dates relating to the application process are yet to be finalised.