Projects led by Luis Serrano (CRG), Eduard Batlle (IRB Barcelona), Pau Gorostiza (IBEC), Raúl Méndez (IRB Barcelona) and José Antonio del Río (IBEC) have also been awarded “la Caixa” Health Research Grants and four researchers from ICFO (2), IFAE and IRB Barcelona received postdoctoral grants.
The project Adaptive Retinal Implant Technology for Vision Restoration (i-VISION), led by the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), a BIST centre, has been awarded a “la Caixa” Health Research Grant. The work is the follow-up of the BIST Ignite THEIA project, in which the ICN2, IFAE, ICFO and Barraquer Ophthalmological Center began their research into this new generation of retinal prostheses. THEIA was awarded funding through two successive BIST Ignite grants, in 2016 and in 2017.
BIST centres IFAE and ICFO, along with the Barraquer Foundation and the Institut de la Vision (University of Sorbonne) are the partner institutions forming the newly named i-VISION research consortium led by the BIST centre ICN2. The three-year project will design the next generation of retinal prostheses using graphene-based electrodes to provide artificial vision to patients blinded by retinal degeneration.
This year’s “la Caixa” Health Research Grants are the second edition of a call aimed at fostering biomedical and health research projects with high social impact. The grants consist of 1 million euros for research consortia, as is the case with i-VISION, and half a million for individual institutions. A total of 22 projects have been selected out of 632 proposals, covering areas such as oncology, infectious diseases and neuroscience. The grantees have three years to turn their projects into meaningful results.
Another five projects led by BIST researchers have been awarded in the 2019 call as well: Luis Serrano (CRG) for a project on the use of lung bacteria to cure lung diseases; Eduard Batlle (IRB Barcelona) for a project on metastasis; Pau Gorostiza (IBEC) for a project that explores the use of light sensitive drugs to treat vision diseases; Raúl Méndez (IRB Barcelona) for research on hepatic cancer; and José Antonio del Río (IBEC) for a project on Alzheimer disease. In addition, four BIST researchers have been awarded postdoctoral grants: Tobias Grass (ICFO) to study the changes that quantum physics will produce in information technologies; Michael Tayler (ICFO) to research chemical catalyzers; Pol Forn (IFAE) for a project on quantum computers; and Enrique Marcos (IRB Barcelona) to investigate the design of synthetic proteins.
Finally, three projects from the BIST centres have also received awards through the CaixaImpulse call, whose objetive is to promote technology transfer from academia to the business sector. The three projects selected are: How to improve the quality of life of bladder cancer patients, led by Samuel Sánchez (IBEC); How to improve the arrival of drugs to the brain, led by Meritxell Teixidó (IRB Barcelona); and Could we use innovative neuroelectronic implants to treat brain diseases?, led by Damià Viana (ICN2).
The goal of the i-VISION project is to develop a retinal prosthesis technology capable of providing high-acuity artificial vision to people blinded by outer retina layer diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration. In Spain, over 15,000 and 700,000 people are affected by retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration, respectively . In spite of the progressive degeneration of photoreceptor cells caused by these retinal diseases, the neurons responsible for conveying information to the brain remain alive. Retinal prosthesis systems process images of the outside wold recorded by a camera and stimulate these neurons by means of electrodes to re-create vision. However, the quality of restored vision in current retinal prostheses is quite limited.
The i-VISION project aims to improve this technology with the expertise of an interdisciplinary team from research and clinical centres. The tools to overcome the difficulties of producing such innovative retinal prosthesis come from expertise in nanomaterials, electronics and microscopy provided by the ICN2, the Institute for High Energy Physics (IFAE), and The Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO), three BIST centres, and the physiological knowledge and clinical know-how brought by the Barraquer Foundation and the Institut de la Vision (University of Sorbonne). ICREA Prof. Jose Antonio Garrido, Group Leader and Vice-Director of the ICN2, is the Project Leader and stresses that “we will seek to implement thousands of small-diameter electrodes and increasingly more sophisticated stimulation protocols that can adapt to the patients’ needs”.
The electrode material interfacing with retinal neurons will be based on graphene, a nanomaterial that will enable the use of more and smaller high-performing electrodes capable of bidirectional (recording and stimulation) communication with the retina. The microelectronics of the prosthesis will implement closed-loop adaptive stimulation strategies and novel wireless technology to power the implant and transmit the electrical stimulus. Advanced in vitro and in vivo imaging and recording techniques will be used to create a personalized map of retina-visual cortex interconnectivity, and thereby optimize the visual acuity restored by the retinal prosthesis.
The developed technology is expected to provide immediate benefits to retinal prosthesis patients, and may later serve as a standard carrier for the much broader field of neuroprosthetics.