Glaucoma can cause nerve damage and the loss of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) resulting in vision degradation or blindness. The Ophthimal Research Labs have just demonstrated a treatment where modified retinal ganglion cells, called xRGCs, along with patient’s own bone marrow derived stem cells are implanted in the retina of a patient. While typical RGCs act as an interface between photosensitive cells and vision processing regions of the brain, xRGCs are directly photosensitive, and consequentially bypass rods and cones to produce visual information. However, the photosensitive proteins in xRCGs are only excitable by light on the infrared spectrum. The technique has been successful in trials, with patients suffering from blindness acquiring coherent vision. While these patients suffer significant limitations by being unable to process the standard visual spectrum, the ability to see in infrared has proven to be a monumental improvement in capacity and function, and has been widely praised as a breakthrough medical technique.
Recently, the technique has been considered for nonmedical uses. In this case, xRGCs have been implanted in patients not suffering from vision loss, and have successfully integrated with the optical nerve, providing additional visual information than provided by the natural eye. These patients have effectively used the procedure to broaden the visual spectrum. Publicity of this use of xRGCs has resulted in a public backlash, citing fears based on safety and the protection of privacy.
- Should function enhancing procedures like xRGC implants be permitted in the absence of medical need?
- Further research into xRGCs has yielded techniques to manipulate excitation wavelengths and move them to the visual spectrum. Should future procedures be required to limit implants to restore only sensitivity to this spectrum?
- How could nonmedical applications of visual enhancement be managed?
- Allhoff, F., et al. "Ethics of human enhancement: 25 questions & answers." Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology 4 (2009).
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- Wolffsohn, J. S., and Peterson, R. C. "A review of current knowledge on Electronic Vision Enhancement Systems for the visually impaired." Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics 23 (2003): 35-42.
- Belluck, P. “Device offers partial vision for the blind.” The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2013. Accessed June 6, 2014.