The Road to Treatments

Rozina Issani is a pioneer.

Photo: Rozina Isanni (left)

Rozina Issani (left) with her friend at Vision Quest 2015.

She is one of only a few Canadians who have been implanted with the Argus II retinal prosthesis, also known as the Bionic Eye. But it’s been a long road to get here.

Born in Pakistan in 1961, the youngest of three children, Rozina’s parents realized she wasn’t seeing properly when she started to crawl. Unfortunately, doctors could not provide a conclusive diagnosis and Rozina’s eye sight grew alarmingly worse over the years.

Then at the age of 22, her older brothers sponsored Rozina and her parents to join them in Canada, in the hope that the Canadian medical system could diagnose and treat for her degenerating eye sight.

A year later at SickKids in Toronto, Rozina was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Doctors informed Rozina and her parents that there were no treatments for the blinding eye disease anywhere in the world.

“We were devastated,” shares Rozina. “We left everything behind in India – friends, family, a successful business – hoping to find a treatment for my eye disease in Canada.”

Since there was little Dr. Devenyi could do to help at the time, Rozina stopped seeing him.

Fast forward almost thirty years and Rozina learned through the Foundation Fighting Blindness that Dr. Devenyi is leading a revolutionary surgery implanting the Argus II retinal prosthesis in people living with RP.

The implant, approved by Health Canada, is connected wirelessly to a coil positioned on the frame of a modified pair of glasses.  A miniaturized camera is mounted on the bridge of the glasses. The glasses are attached to a small computer worn on a belt around the waist. The camera transmits images to the computer, which in turn transmits the images to the coil on the glasses. This coil stimulates a microchip implanted on the retina of the individual living with RP.

Rozina thought to herself: “I’m in my 50s, I have no functional vision, and I have nothing to lose if the Argus II doesn’t work for me.”

Excited about this new development, Rozina re-connect with Dr. Devenyi’s office. She underwent extensive testing to confirm that she had no remaining functional vision.

 

“In this case, my failure was my success,” laughs Rozina. “The test results showed that I was a perfect candidate for the Argus II.”

The surgery to implant the microchip on Rozina’s retina lasted four hours. She had a quick recovery and three weeks after the surgery she began attending visual rehabilitation sessions. Right away, Rozina could see the lights in the room and she was able to see the outlines of people in the room.

Rozina stresses that the bionic eye is “an artificial algorithm of sight, I don’t see the way a sighted person can.”

But after a year of learning how to use the device, Rozina is able to perceive lights, detect an obstacle in her way, find an empty seat on the subway or bus, and also see the pedestrian crossing lines at an intersection to help her cross safely.

“I am still learning but considering I had no functional vision before the Argus II implant, I‘m now able to see quite a bit,” she says.

“This is a very new, highly experimental technology,” says Rozina, “but as time passes, I know it will improve; new software will be developed and the hardware will be refined.” She likens it to mobile phones. Early cell phones were bulky and only made phone calls. Within a generation the technology has improved dramatically: smartphones now fit into a pocket and perform most computer functions.

Rozina is confident the next version of Argus II will be an improvement, and she’s excited that the developers are testing the device to treat more common eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration.

“I’m thrilled that in my lifetime the Argus II is available to help me have some kind of vision, but most of all, I’m so grateful that there are donors who make this kind of treatment advancement a reality.”

Rozina herself has participated in Cycle for Sight, a fundraising event for the Foundation Fighting Blindness since it was founded. Little did she know as she pedalled from Toronto to Collingwood that the dollars she helped raise for vision research would one day fund an observational trial that she would be a part of.

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