The NHS will pay for 10 blind patients to have “bionic eyes” to help treat an inherited form of blindness.
The bionic eye is a retinal implant which interprets images captured by a miniature video camera worn on a pair of glasses.
Five patients will be treated at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital and five at Moorfields Eye Hospital in 2017.
They will be monitored for a year afterwards to see how they get on in everyday life.
“I’m delighted,” said Prof Paulo Stanga from the Manchester hospital.
He has been involved in earlier trials of the Argus II Bionic Eye, made by the company Second Sight, in retinitis pigmentosa.
He added: “It surpassed all of our expectations when we realised that one of the retinitis pigmentosa patients using the bionic eye could identify large letters for the first time in his adult life.”
This disease, which is often passed down through families, destroys the light-sensing cells in the retina. It leads to vision loss and eventually blindness.
Keith Hayman, who is 68 and from Lancashire, was fitted with the bionic eye in Manchester.
The former butcher was forced to retire early because of the disease and had been blind for more than two decades.
He said: “Having spent half my life in darkness, I can now tell when my grandchildren run towards me and make out lights twinkling on Christmas trees.
“I would be talking to a friend, who might have walked off and I couldn’t tell and kept talking to myself, this doesn’t happen any more, because I can tell when they have gone.
“These little things make all the difference to me.”
How it works
The bionic eye implant receives its visual information from a miniature camera mounted on glasses worn by the patient.
The images are converted into electrical pulses and transmitted wirelessly to an array of electrodes attached to the retina.
The electrodes stimulate the remaining retina’s remaining cells which send the information to the brain.
Gregoire Cosendai, from Second Sight, says: “This is the first time in history that any treatment for this type of blindness has existed and now it is to be offered free of charge to blind patients.
“This is a major victory for blind people in the UK who have supported us in our six-year mission to fund Argus II in England.”
Dr Jonathan Fielden, from NHS England, said: “This highly innovative NHS-funded procedure shows real promise and could change lives.
“The NHS has given the world medical innovations ranging from modern cataract surgery, new vaccines and hip replacements, now once again the NHS is at the forefront of harnessing ground-breaking science for the benefit of patients in this country.”