16 September 2019 “la Caixa” Health Research Grant allows BIST researchers to advance graphene-based retinal prosthesis research

ICFO participates in the i-VISION project consortium with ICN2, IFAE, Barraquer Foundation and Institut de Vision (University of Sorbonne) The project Adaptive Retinal Implant Technology for Vision Restoration (i-VISION), which began in 2017 as a collaborative project between BIST centers funded through BIST IGNITE program, has been awarded a “la Caixa” Health Research Grant. This is the second edition of “la Caixa’s” call aimed at fostering biomedical and health research projects with high social impact. The grant will provide the research consortia 1 million euros to carry out research to design the next generation of retinal prostheses using graphene-based electrodes to offer artificial vision to patients blinded by retinal degeneration. A total of 22 projects have been selected out of 632 proposals submitted to the “la Caixa” call, covering areas such as oncology, infectious diseases and neuroscience. The grantees now have three years to turn their projects into meaningful results.

The goal of the i-VISION project is to develop a retinal prosthesis technology capable of providing high-acuity artificial vision to people blinded by outer retina layer diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration. In spite of the progressive degeneration of photoreceptor cells caused by these retinal diseases, the neurons responsible for conveying information to the brain remain alive. Retinal prosthesis systems process images of the outside world recorded by a camera and stimulate these eye neurons by means of electrodes to re-create vision, bypassing in this way the damaged photo receptors. However, the quality of restored vision in retinal prostheses currently available in market is quite limited.

The i-VISION project aims to improve this technology with the work of an interdisciplinary team composed of experts from research and clinical centres. The tools to overcome the difficulties of producing such innovative retinal prosthesis will be developed based on the expertise in nanomaterials, electronics and microscopy provided by the ICN2 (project coordinators), the Institut de Física d’Altes Energies (IFAE) and ICFO, all three institutions founding members of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST), together with the physiological knowledge and clinical know-how brought by the Barraquer Foundation and the Institut de la Vision (University of Sorbonne). Dr. Pablo Loza-Alvarez, head of the Super Resolution light Microscopy and nanoscopy (SLN) lab at ICFO emphasises that the efforts of his team in this project aim “for a better understanding on what would be the most efficient strategies for external stimulus that can be applied to the neurons through the electronic implant. This gained knowledge would result in a better quality of vision for the patient”.

The electrode material interfacing with retinal neurons will be based on graphene, a nanomaterial that will enable the use of more and smaller high-performing electrodes capable of bidirectional (recording and stimulation) communication with the retina. The microelectronics of the prosthesis will implement closed-loop adaptive stimulation strategies and novel wireless technology to power the implant and transmit the electrical stimulus. Advanced in vitro and in vivo imaging and recording techniques will be used to create a personalized map of retina-visual cortex interconnectivity, and thereby optimize the visual acuity restored by the retinal prosthesis.

This work is the follow up of the THEIA project, under which the ICFO, ICN2, IFAE, and Barraquer Ophthalmological Center set the basis of this new generation of retinal prostheses with the funding of two successive BIST Ignite grants. The developed technology will produce a positive impact for retinal prosthesis, and may later serve as a standard bearer for the much broader field of neuroprosthetics.