By Linda Carroll
For years Larry Hester lived in darkness, his sight stolen by a disease that destroyed the photoreceptor cells in his retinas. But last week, through the help of a “bionic eye,” Hester got a chance to once again glimpse a bit of the world around him.
Hester is the seventh patient to receive an FDA-approved device that translates video signals into data the optic nerve can process. The images Hester and others “see” will be far from full sight, but experts hope it will be enough to give a little more autonomy to those who had previously been completely blind.
Hester’s doctors at Duke University Eye Center believe that as time goes on the 66-year-old tire salesman from Raleigh, N.C., will be able to “see” more and more. After only five days, there has been remarkable progress.
“I hope that [after some practice] he will be able to do things he can’t do today: maybe walk around a little more independently, see doorways or the straight line of a curb. We don’t expect him to be able to make out figures on TV. But we hope he’ll be more visually connected.” said Dr. Paul Hahn, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the university in Durham.
It was at Duke three decades ago that Hester learned that something was seriously wrong with his eyes. After a battery of tests, doctors delivered the disheartening news: Hester had retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that would inexorably chip away at the rods and cones in his retinas, eventually leaving him blind.
“It was a pretty devastating blow, frankly,” Hester said. “I was 33 at the time.”
But Larry Hester wasn’t the sort of guy to sit around feeling sorry for himself. With the support of family, friends and a devoted wife, he found a way to live his life as normally as possible, depending on his memory to help him navigate around his home and his workplace.
One day his wife, Jerry, saw a story about a device that might help Larry. The FDA had just approved it for use in people who suffer from the same condition as Larry —some 50,000 to 100,000 in the U.S.
Larry was just the kind of patient that Hahn was looking for to try out the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis system, and he became the first to get the device at Duke.
Argus was designed to bypass damaged photoreceptors and send signals directly to the next layer of retinal cells, which are on the pathway to the optic nerve.
A miniature video camera seated in a pair of glasses captures what the patient is “looking” at and sends the video through a thin cable to a small external computer that transforms the images into signals that can be understood by that second layer of retinal cells. Those data are then sent back to the glasses, which transmit the information through a small antenna to an array of 60 tiny electrodes that implanted up against the patient’s retina.
The electrodes emit small pulses of electricity that make their way up the undamaged retinal cells to the optic nerves, creating the perception of patterns of light. The hope is that patients will learn to interpret those patterns as images.
Last week with the new glasses perched on his nose, Larry sat in a chair at Duke surrounded by medical staff and his family — all waiting for Hahn to turn on the device. Directly in front of Larry was a brightly lit screen.
“At the count of three, we’re going to hit the start button and we’ll see what happens,” Hahn said.
At three, a smile started to play on Larry’s lips.
“Yes,” he said and the smile broadened across his face. “Oh my goodness!”
Jerry looked at him and exclaimed, “Can you see, Larry?”
After giving her husband a kiss, she asked again, “Can you really see?”
“Yes. Flashing. Big time flashing.”
Experts see the new device as the start of something big.
“It’s a fairly limited device, but it’s an amazing leap forward,” said Dr. Colin McCannel, a retinal expert at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s not the vision you or I are used to. But for someone who has been in complete darkness it must be amazing to see again. I think it’s absolutely phenomenal.”
Dr. Neil Bressler turns to the space program for an analogy.
“It’s like the first rocket ship that went up and down, or when John Glenn went into orbit,” said Bressler, a professor of ophthalmology and chief of the retina division at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “If you asked can we put a man on the moon the next day the answer would be no. It was the first of many steps to achieve the objective of putting a man on the moon.”
While the device isn’t even close to giving Larry back the vision he was born with, he can see contrasts, which allows him, for example, to distinguish between a white wall and a darkened doorway.
If you’ve lived in darkness for decades, that little bit of new-found vision can be a huge gift.
“The other night I was sitting on a dark leather chair,” Jerry said. “He was able to scan over and see my face because it was lighter. And he reached out and touched my face. That is the first time he had done that in a long time. It was a sweet and precious moment.”
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently published “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry.”