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A Tortoise File

Into the dark: The broken promise of a bionic eye

Imagine being blind but thanks to the wonders of technology being able to see again. How would you then feel if that sight was taken away?

Into the dark: The broken promise of a bionic eye

First published
Monday 21 March 2022

Last updated
Sunday 20 March 2022

Why this story?

Second Sight promised to transform the lives of people suffering from a rare eye disorder, retinitis pigmentosa. The company was able to partially restore the sight of some 350 people around the world using a retinal implant combined with some clever technology. Jeroen Perk from the Netherlands was one of the first patients to receive the implant, and remembers crying with emotion when his device was switched on. It allowed him to see his wife on their wedding day. Ross Doerr, who also had the implant, remembers seeing his wife for the first time in many years and making out clouds in the sky.

But in early 2020 Second Sight ran into financial trouble and was on the verge of bankruptcy. The company decided it would no longer support the technology which kept the retinal implants working. It meant that all those people living with Second Sight’s device faced the prospect of losing their sight if it stopped working. 

This story was first reported by two journalists working for IEEE Spectrum. What interested us was the extent to which this was a story about cutting edge technology and a company which over-promised and ultimately let down its patients. It also raises a fascinating question about medical ethics: who is responsible for maintaining an implant when a company decides it won’t or no longer can? Over the next few years biotechnology is likely to play a bigger role in our lives, potentially offering treatment for things we never imagined would be curable. But as Eliza Strickland of IEEE Spectrum points out we are at the beginning of a bionic cyborg age and we’re going to see some messy parts before it gets settled. Jasper Corbett, Editor