About one in 4,000 people in the United States suffers from retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic disease of the retina that causes light-sensing cells to degenerate and eventually leads to vision impairment. Symptoms might start as night blindness.
Recent advances in optogenetics have opened the possibility of restoring light sensitivity to vision cells using a simple injection and gene-based therapy. But how can these newly programmed cells reconnect with the brain to process images? This is the million-dollar question.
Israeli researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa have found a futuristic and bionic way to bypass neural circuitry and directly stimulate restored vision cells with a computer-driven technique called holography.
The researchers have developed a tool to photo-stimulate retinal cells with precision and high resolution, suggesting that one day in the not-so-distant future, people blinded by RP may see beyond shadows once again.
“It’s something like Google Glass for the blind,” Prof. Shy Shoham from the Technion tells ISRAEL21c, referring to Google’s wearable computer with a head-mounted display, set to be released later this year.
“We did not develop optogenetics and it’s a young technology, but it is firmly established and the potential is recognized. What is missing, and what we are offering, is a powerful solution driving the neural networks of these optogenetically restored cells.”
Shoham explains, “What our system will do is activate these cells with patterns. It’s a system that drives the projection of ‘movies’ powerful enough to stimulate retinal cells artificially.”
Like any responsible scientist, Shoham, an engineer and lead scientist of this new research presented in Nature Communications, is not offering false hope to people who are already blind. Unfortunately, he cannot help them.
But if a significant financial investment were to be made in the project, “clear” results could be seen in the future.
“The basic idea of optogenetics is to take a light-sensitive protein from another organism, typically from algae or bacteria, and insert it into a target cell, and that photosensitizes the cell,” Shoham explains.
However, the genetically repaired cells are less sensitive to light than normal healthy retinal cells, so they need a bright light source — a laser, or in the new research project, a holograph — to be activated.
The researchers plan to develop a prosthetic headset that looks like the new Google Glass, or create an eyepiece that would translate visual scenes into light, which would stimulate the genetically altered cells.
The Israeli scientists used computer-generated holography to stimulate repaired retinas in mice. The light stimulus was intense, precise and capable of stimulating many cells at one time, which are all necessary for proper vision.
They previously tried lasers and digital displays used in projectors, but both approaches had their drawbacks.
“Lasers give intensity, but they can’t give the parallel projection” that would simultaneously stimulate all the cells needed to see a complete picture, says Shoham. “Holography is a way of getting the best of both worlds.”
This new approach could power new retina prostheses being tested in the United States. One called Argus II was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) early this year, but offers only rudimentary vision to the wearer.
“You need to be careful with these things so the technology doesn’t run ahead of us,” Shoham cautions. “The system we are working on can potentially restore vision that is very high quality. But it will take at least five to 10 years.”
The technology also has many potential applications in the field of virtual reality.
American actor Ashton Kutcher did not visit Israel last week just to find an Israeli startup company to invest in or to explore his roots through Kabbalah. Apparently, he is also looking for a luxurious piece of real estate.
Kutcher, who arrived in the Holy Land as the guest of a conference organized by high-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, found the time to search for an office on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. The Hollywood star is said to be considering opening a business incubator center in Israel.
Kutcher and his business partner Guy Oseary, one of the leading producers in the US music industry and Madonna’s personal manager, visited a site on 22 Rothschild Boulevard, where the Aviv Group is building one of the most luxurious office buildings in Israel (Aviv Rothschild Center, which will be ready in about six months) at a total investment of NIS 250 million (about $70 million).
Aviv Group Chairman Doron Aviv said in the past, “Because new office buildings have not been built in Tel Aviv for a long time, we are now seeing a surge in demands for the project on the part of Israeli and international financial institutions.”
The rent price per square meter in the new tower stands at NIS 130-150 ($35-41) on average.
Kutcher and Oseary spent Shavuot Eve at a restaurant in Tel Aviv before heading to the Western Wall in Jerusalem for midnight prayers and psalms in honor of the Jewish holiday. Before leaving for the United States on Wednesday evening, they met with several high-tech people.
Kutcher told his guests about his partnership with Oseary in startup investments: “Guy and I began investing together because we wanted to change the world. We wanted to be part of the social network revolution, which brings people who don’t know each other together to create a conversation or a community. We want to be part of that.”
Kutcher and Oseary are joint investors in the A-Grade venture capital fund, which they founded together with Ron Burkle in 2011. Their investments include Airbnb, Spotify, Path, Soundcloud, Groupon and Shazam.
Kutcher is considered one of the early adopters of the Twitter social networking website, beating CNN to become the first user to reach one million followers in 2009.
The actor also invested in the Katango startup of Yoav Shoham, an Israeli professor of computer science at Stanford University, and made a profit when it was sold to Google for tens of millions of dollars about two years ago.
Tata Industries will invest $5 million in a new Tel Aviv University (TAU) technology fund, saying it saw the university as its Israeli research and development center.
Tata, part of Indian conglomerate Tata Group, will be the lead investor in a planned $20 million fund at TAU’s technology transfer company Ramot aimed at commercializing their research.
“For Tata, we … see innovation and R&D as an area of focus and a source of competitive advantage going forward,” Rameshwar Jamwal, executive director at Tata Industries, told reporters last week.
Jamwal said it was Tata’s first major investment in Israel and that it would likely invest further.
“This is our attempt to scout Israeli technology more deeply,” he said. “This allows us over a period of time to show our commitment to Israel but we are interested in doing more.”
Tata will work with TAU’s scientists to help steer them towards applying commercial uses for their research.
“It’s someone to test your ideas and say what’s a mistake,” said Shlomo Nimrodi, Ramot’s chief executive. “Tata knows the market better.”
He noted that TAU invests $150 million a year in R&D. Among Ramot’s big successes is flash memory, which was licensed by an Israeli company before it was sold to Sandisk, which still pays millions of dollars of royalties to the university.
Nimrodi said the new fund will invest in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, cleantech, food security, the environment, engineering and software.
He noted that in some cases, Tata will get the right of first opportunity in a particular research project.
Many large global companies have R&D facilities in Israel, including Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Google, HP and Yahoo.
A representative of Qatar’s royal family, Prince Khalifa al-Thani, is expected to visit Israel in November in a bid to promote cooperation in the field of high-tech between the two countries.
This will be the first official visit by a Qatar royalty to the Jewish state.
Al-Thani will arrive in Israel following the inauguration of the Israel-Palestine Business Arbitration Center, a commercial initiative led by Oren Shachor, president of the International Chamber of Commerce in Israel, and his Palestinian counterpart, Munib al-Masri.
The center offers arbitration services in disputes of up to $7 million between Israeli and Palestinian businesspeople.
Commercial relations between Israel and Qatar are taking place these days on informal channels, which include trade in goods but hardly any trade in high-tech products.
The Qatari government is interested in strengthening its local high-tech sector by acquiring knowledge and technologies and by encouraging Israeli high-tech companies to exports work and development projects to Qatar, rather than to India or Eastern Europe, in order to provide jobs for local engineers graduating from prestigious universities abroad.
The visit’s itinerary will be built in the coming months, and al-Thani is expected to meet with senior Israeli officials from the high-tech and venture capital industry.
The visit was scheduled over the weekend during a meeting between al-Thani and Shachor aimed at advancing trade relations between the countries.
Prince al-Thani is said to be very close to Qatar’s emir, prime minister and foreign minister and is considered a key figure in the country in terms of foreign trade and business relations, as well as in regards to trade agreements and regional agreements in the Persian Gulf emirates.
The Qatari prime minister was informed beforehand of al-Thani’s meeting with the Israeli official.
Shachor, formerly the coordinator of the government’s activities in the territories and president and chairman of the EAPC Group of Companies (Eilat Ashkelon oil pipeline), met earlier this week with a senior Iranian political and economic official.
The Iranian, who recognized Shachor as the ICC Israel representative, approached him together with another senior economic figure, and the three engaged in a long conversation. The official expressed the Iranian people’s hope for a major change in the upcoming elections in their country and for the downfall President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.