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A Bionic Eye That Could Restore Vision (and Put Humans in the Matrix?)

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A few feet inside the unassuming front door at Science Corp. in Alameda, California, lies a brightly lit room with large, transparent windows. On a late November afternoon, three gowned surgeons carefully circle a New Zealand white rabbit laid out on an ocean-blue cloth. About a month prior, the rabbit — named Leela, after Futurama’s one-eyed heroine — received an injection through the white of her eyeball.

Just outside the surgery room, Max Hodak, the CEO of Science Corp., stands in jeans and a black hoodie, cradling a laptop in the crook of his arm. The presentation on his screen shows a small device, about the size of a penny, attached to a thin tail of wiring. It’s a device he hopes can restore a critical sense and help the blind see again. It doesn’t look like much — a miniature city of electronics attached to a microLED display just 2mm square — but it doesn’t have to.

The prosthesis he’s showing off is known as the Science Eye, and once it’s been proved safe and effective, it’ll be implanted on top of, and inside, the eyeballs of human patients suffering from diseases where the eye’s light-sensing cells have died. The idea is to coax other cells within the eye to receive and translate light signals. The device was unveiled as the biotech exited stealth on Nov. 21 last year.

It had been a busy morning for Hodak, but an air of quiet optimism suffused the Science facility during my visit. In the months since, the company’s first scientific paper was uploaded to bioRxiv, a repository for preprint scientific articles, describing the extensive foundational work Science Corp. has undertaken, including demonstrating how its technology works in rabbits like Leela, and readying it for future trials to test its vision-restoring capabilities.

As I stand with Hodak outside the surgery, he runs through images on his laptop, pointing out the form factor of the Science Eye and how many pixels the team has been able to jam into the device’s wafer-thin microLED. The number stands at an impressive 16,000, allowing for a resolution he says is about “eight times better than an iPhone 13.” He shows off a brief demo of the kind of “vision” someone with a Science Eye might have. Red pixels dance around a screen, recapitulating a view of a street and a human waving their hands.

The microLED device, which Science calls FlexLED, is just one component of the Science Eye. For it to restore even this form of vision to patients, the Science team first needs to deliver a gene to a specific region of the eye and demonstrate it can generate electrical signals in the regions of the brain responsible for controlling sight. That’s where Leela comes in.

While Hodak and co-founder Alan Mardinly explain the process to me, behind them, Leela’s eyeball is carefully being removed from its socket.


TO READ THIS article, your eye and your brain are involved in a frantic dance, enlivened by a storm of light and electrical signals. This dance, honed by millions of years of evolution, provides us with the sensation of sight.

Light from your screen is focused by the lens of your eye onto the retina, a layer of tissue at the rear of the eye containing light-sensing cells known as photoreceptors. These cells, which are shaped like rods and cones, contain molecules known as opsins, which can convert the incoming light into an electrical signal.

That signal is eventually passed forward to nerve cells called retinal ganglion cells, which snake from the eye up into the brain as the optic nerve, transmitting information that creates a visual image of the world.

In genetic diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration, abnormalities in the layer of photoreceptors in the retina ultimately lead to their death. With the photoreceptors lost, light signals can no longer be translated to electrical signals, resulting in blindness. It’s not a perfect analogy, but think of the eye like a house. There’s still electricity flowing into the wires of the home, but with these diseases, all the lightbulbs have blown out.

The FlexLED sits at the back of the eye, while the electronics package sits on top of the eyeball in the same way a glaucoma shunt might.

 

Zooey Liao/CNET

Fortunately, there are other ways to light it up. While the photoreceptors are lost in retinitis pigmentosa, the RGCs — and other cells in the retina — remain intact. The brain can still decode light signals. The idea behind the Science Eye is to modify these RGCs to become photoreceptive so they can be stimulated, by light, and send those signals to the brain. It’s like bringing lamps into the house and plugging them in to provide light.

The modification requires an injection of a specially designed opsin, which has been genetically manipulated and encased in a deactivated virus to seek out RGCs. The Science team has been able to show that the opsin makes its way to RGCs, in experiments with neurons derived from stem cells and in retinal organoids, simulacra of a human retina. In short, they can illuminate the house with lamps, rather than lightbulbs.

“What we want to do is test it in an adult human … but we can’t until we’re allowed to,” says Alan Mardinly, a Science co-founder and its director of biology. “The next best thing is to grow a retina and test it in those human cells.”

The organoids, which develop from stem cells into a mixture of cells including RGCs, are doused in a solution of the viral construct containing opsins. About 10 weeks later they’re placed under a microscope, where researchers, including cell engineer Kevin Smith, go searching for bright red cells — signifying that the opsin has landed in the organoid’s RGCs. I’m told this is working well, with about one in five RGCs expressing the construct designed by Science. Further refinement of the viral construct and the opsin is expected to deliver even better expression.

This work at the lab bench shows that the method works in vitro, outside of a living organism. But what about inside a living organism? For that, Science needs Leela. More specifically, it needs her eyes.


AS I WANDER through the laboratories at Science with Hodak and Mardinly, I pass by scientist Amy Rochford as she works with tweezers and a paintbrush to delicately manipulate a thumbnail-size piece of tissue.

This, she tells me, is Leela’s eyeball.

Rochford slices it open, removing various parts of the eye, like the lens and the vitreous, a gel-like layer in the middle, before spreading the ocular orb open like a flower with four petals. The paintbrush helps access the retina and delicately sections it out for processing, so another member of the Science team — someone like cell engineer Smith — can study it down the lens of a microscope.

Rabbit eyes aren’t quite the same as human eyes. One of the chief differences is a region known as the fovea, a central depression in the retina where a lot of light-sensitive cones are packed tightly together. Rabbits have a streak of cells whereas humans have a pit, Mardinly notes, and the fundamental eye biology is a little different, but the New Zealand Whites provide a great starting point for this kind of research.

Fluorescent orange and purples show the cells of the rabbit retina.
The rods and cones in a rabbit’s retina at 4,000x magnification.

 

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Science needs to validate two concepts. First, its viral construct, containing the opsin, has to get into RGCs in the rabbit retina. Second, the pulsing light of the FlexLED device needs to stimulate the opsins and send signals to the brain. In rabbits, Science isn’t trying to restore vision just yet. Rather, it’s doing the basic science to show the method works.

Early results indicate it does. Experiments with two rabbits, described in a preprint the team released in February, show they’ve been able to make RGCs light-sensitive. They’ve also been able to pulse the FlexLED device and detect activity in the visual centers of the brain.

However, to stimulate the opsin in RGCs, patients (including Science’s rabbits) need to be exposed to a specific wavelength of light. The opsin doesn’t respond to natural light like the human eye; it’s unable to generate a full picture of the environment like healthy photoreceptor cells can. For that reason, the Eye will require patients to wear a pair of glasses with cameras that communicate information, wirelessly via infrared, to the FlexLED implanted over the retina.

The vision restoration for early patients won’t be a miraculous return to 20/20, but it will help them make sense of their world; the sensation will be akin to sight but with much less fidelity.

To restore high-resolution vision, there are physiological barriers that have yet to be overcome. For instance, the human retina contains more than 100 million photoreceptors in each eye, but only about 1 million RGCs, a difference that’s hard to overcome — but not impossible. In some ways, it might even be considered easier to stimulate just the RGCs and get them to fire.

Patients would be required to wear glasses that communicate wirelessly with the Science Eye implant.

 

Zooey Liao/CNET

RGCs are also separated into distinct types, which relay slightly different information to the brain. “I’ve heard people refer to them as, like, Photoshop filters,” Hodak explains. “When you stack them all together, you get the natural scene.”

In theory, a future version of the FlexLED device could drive different types of RGCs. Hodak notes that he isn’t sure if this is possible just yet, but with refinement, the device may even be able to have a constant, one-to-one mapping between a pixel on its FlexLED screen and an individual RGC. Combined with the brain’s ability to adapt over time, high-resolution vision restoration could be within reach.

Read more: Virtual Exams Are the Future of Eye Care


SCIENCE ISN’T THE only team working on modifying the eye to restore vision, but in the burgeoning field of optogenetics, its approach is unique.

A number of companies are experimenting with different techniques, including using gene-editing RGCs and light-altering goggles. For instance, French biotech company GenSight is working on a similar optogenetics system, using gene therapy and glasses. Its system doesn’t require overlaying a thin microLED on the retina like the Science Eye, making it less risky. Instead, it uses goggles to amplify the ambient, natural light into a monochromatic signal that genetically edited RGCs can decipher.

This method arguably provides less fine control of opsin activation in the RGCs, but it’s already in clinical trials and has been shown to “partially restore” vision in a patient with retinitis pigmentosa, according to a 2021 paper in the journal Nature. The patient was able to detect objects, like a notepad on a table, after wearing the GenSight glasses over a matter of months.

Hodak’s previous place of employment, Neuralink, also recently entered the race to restore vision. Hodak co-founded that brain-computer startup with a team of scientists, engineers and, yes, Elon Musk back in 2016. Hodak left in 2021. The comparison between the two companies has been the primary focus of articles regarding Science to date, with publications dubbing the biotech firm a “Neuralink rival.”

Comparing the two is, at this stage, kind of like comparing In-N-Out Burger to Whole Foods. Neuralink’s approach involves implanting electrodes directly into the brain, where they’re tasked with interpreting signals and stimulating brain cells in an effort to restore movement and sight, and, according to Musk, allow humans to merge with AI.

Regulatory bodies are already showing concerns about that approach. Neuralink has failed one application to the US Food and Drug Administration to get its product into trials. Science will face the same hurdles, but the Science Eye has one major advantage over the Link: Surgery of the eye comes with its own dangers, but they’re not comparable to inserting electrodes into the brain.

Safety remains paramount, however. Raymond Wong, a stem cell biologist at the University of Melbourne working on eye disease treatments, notes Science will need to make sure “the implant doesn’t cause damage to neighboring retina cells, increase intraocular pressure [or] cause intraocular inflammation.” These are potential problems Hodak, Mardinly and others are trying to solve in preclinical work using rabbits like Leela, and likely primates too, but the real test will come when the devices first make their way into humans.

That moment will, Hodak hopes, be just the beginning. Though the Science Eye is the only device that’s been publicly unveiled, it’s clear Science is already thinking beyond. It would be shortsighted to assume otherwise. After all, the startup’s ambitions are lurking right there in the name. Science. This isn’t a company built around one product or goal.

“It’s early days but if this works it’ll be an enormous company,” says Hodak. “Like, we’re not in any one area of medical devices, we might not even be just medical devices eventually.” Hodak is coy when pressed about those devices, saying they’ll be announced if and when they’re ready. There have been some indications, though, of Science’s ultimate ambitions.


WHEN HODAK ANNOUNCED his new venture on his personal blog in late 2021, he made a bold proclamation. “The future isn’t better smartphones or AR glasses: It’s making the sensorium itself directly programmable, and maybe even adding new senses entirely,” he wrote.

This idea — reprogramming the brain to experience new senses — isn’t limited to the realm of science fiction. The brain is intrinsically linked to how we experience the world. We’ve evolved five senses, at least according to Aristotle, and that view holds true today: touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing. Modern science has added a couple more. Our balance is a special sense, as is proprioception, the ability to discern our body’s location and movement.

There are even scientists who believe the number of senses we have stretches into the 20s; our ability to discern the passage of time and our body’s reaction to hot and cold states are other senses. What Hodak seems to be getting at when he talks about programming the sensorium is the notion that the brain isn’t an unchanging organ. It’s receptive to new, external inputs and, over time, it can learn to adapt to them. Give it a new way to interact with the world, and slowly it will process that information in a way the body can understand.

Now, instead of restoring vision, perhaps imagine a Science Eye implanted in a person with perfect vision. It might stimulate the brain in such a way that the person sees specific images or places, via fine control of the RGCs. You could see and interact with an entire world that isn’t there. It’s kind of like plugging in to a simulation, a virtual world plugged directly in to your eye. It’s an idea exemplified by the posters that line the hallways of Science, artwork jokingly referred to as “propaganda” by Hodak. One, in particular, catches my eye. It’s an abstract piece featuring a series of colored nodes in the shape of a brain. Underneath it reads: “Alter the brain, alter reality.”

People stand at a white doorway with green code falling from the sky People stand at a white doorway with green code falling from the sky
Announcing Science Corp, Hodak signed off with, “See you in the Matrix.”

 

Getty Images

If that reminds you of a classic science fiction film of the 2000s, that’s deliberate. Hodak signed off from his announcement blog post with the words: “See you in the Matrix.”

In that short sentence, perhaps, we get a glimpse of what Science intends to accomplish.

We’re a long way from that future. And, to be clear, I didn’t find any locked doors during my tour of the Science facility in Alameda. There was no suggestion that secretive plans were taking shape behind the scenes — to supercharge our senses or create artificial worlds where you can upload karate skills directly into your brain. But, as the company exited stealth, that blog post from Hodak was at the front of my mind. So were the rabbits.

Before I leave, animal technician Jess Tapp takes me into Science’s animal house where rabbits hide out in their hutches. She knows them by name and speaks to them like they’re her personal companions. One of the rabbits — I didn’t write down the name — is rather shy. As I bend down and look inside, I can see her nose twitching a little, her ears at attention.

She bounds, carefully and inquisitively, to the front of the hutch. As she does so, the light catches in her eyes, reflecting the deep red typical of her breed. The storyteller in me hopes to see something in them, but the rabbit just turns and heads to safety at the back of her hutch.


Disclosure: Kevin Smith, Science Corp’s cell engineer, is a childhood friend of Jackson Ryan. 

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Las Vegas Aces Rookie Kate Martin Suffers Ankle Injury in Game Against Chicago Sky

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Las Vegas Aces rookie Kate Martin had to be helped off the floor and taken to the locker room after suffering an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Sky.

Late in the first quarter, Martin was pushing the ball up the court when she appeared to twist her ankle and lost her balance. The rookie was in serious pain, lying on the floor before eventually being helped off. Her entire team came out in support, and although she managed to put some pressure on the leg, she was taken to the locker room for further evaluation.

Martin returned to the team’s bench late in the second quarter but was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

“Kate Martin is awesome. Kate Martin picks up things so quickly, she’s an amazing sponge,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said of the rookie during the preseason. “I think (coach) Becky (Hammon) nicknamed her Kate ‘Money’ Martin. I think that’s gonna stick. And when I say ‘money,’ it’s not just about scoring and stuff, she’s just in the right place at the right time. She just makes people better. And that’s what Becky values, that’s what our coaching staff values and that’s why she’s gonna be a great asset to our team.”

Las Vegas selected Martin in the second round of the 2024 WNBA Draft. She was coming off the best season of her collegiate career at Iowa, where she averaged 13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game during the 2023-24 campaign. Martin’s integration into the Aces organization has been seamless, with her quickly earning the respect and admiration of her teammates and coaches.

The team and fans alike are hoping for a speedy recovery for Martin, whose contributions have been vital to the Aces’ performance this season.

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Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029, and this European satellite will be along for the ride

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The European Space Agency is fast-tracking a new mission called Ramses, which will fly to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis and join the space rock in 2029 when it comes very close to our planet — closer even than the region where geosynchronous satellites sit.

Ramses is short for Rapid Apophis Mission for Space Safety and, as its name suggests, is the next phase in humanity’s efforts to learn more about near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) and how we might deflect them should one ever be discovered on a collision course with planet Earth.

In order to launch in time to rendezvous with Apophis in February 2029, scientists at the European Space Agency have been given permission to start planning Ramses even before the multinational space agency officially adopts the mission. The sanctioning and appropriation of funding for the Ramses mission will hopefully take place at ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting (involving representatives from each of ESA’s member states) in November of 2025. To arrive at Apophis in February 2029, launch would have to take place in April 2028, the agency says.

This is a big deal because large asteroids don’t come this close to Earth very often. It is thus scientifically precious that, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 19,794 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth. For comparison, geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. Such close fly-bys by asteroids hundreds of meters across (Apophis is about 1,230 feet, or 375 meters, across) only occur on average once every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Miss this one, and we’ve got a long time to wait for the next.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004, it was for a short time the most dangerous asteroid known, being classified as having the potential to impact with Earth possibly in 2029, 2036, or 2068. Should an asteroid of its size strike Earth, it could gouge out a crater several kilometers across and devastate a country with shock waves, flash heating and earth tremors. If it crashed down in the ocean, it could send a towering tsunami to devastate coastlines in multiple countries.

Over time, as our knowledge of Apophis’ orbit became more refined, however, the risk of impact  greatly went down. Radar observations of the asteroid in March of 2021 reduced the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit from hundreds of kilometers to just a few kilometers, finally removing any lingering worries about an impact — at least for the next 100 years. (Beyond 100 years, asteroid orbits can become too unpredictable to plot with any accuracy, but there’s currently no suggestion that an impact will occur after 100 years.) So, Earth is expected to be perfectly safe in 2029 when Apophis comes through. Still, scientists want to see how Apophis responds by coming so close to Earth and entering our planet’s gravitational field.

“There is still so much we have yet to learn about asteroids but, until now, we have had to travel deep into the solar system to study them and perform experiments ourselves to interact with their surface,” said Patrick Michel, who is the Director of Research at CNRS at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, in a statement. “Nature is bringing one to us and conducting the experiment itself. All we need to do is watch as Apophis is stretched and squeezed by strong tidal forces that may trigger landslides and other disturbances and reveal new material from beneath the surface.”

The Goldstone radar’s imagery of asteroid 99942 Apophis as it made its closest approach to Earth, in March 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/NSF/AUI/GBO)

By arriving at Apophis before the asteroid’s close encounter with Earth, and sticking with it throughout the flyby and beyond, Ramses will be in prime position to conduct before-and-after surveys to see how Apophis reacts to Earth. By looking for disturbances Earth’s gravitational tidal forces trigger on the asteroid’s surface, Ramses will be able to learn about Apophis’ internal structure, density, porosity and composition, all of which are characteristics that we would need to first understand before considering how best to deflect a similar asteroid were one ever found to be on a collision course with our world.

Besides assisting in protecting Earth, learning about Apophis will give scientists further insights into how similar asteroids formed in the early solar system, and, in the process, how  planets (including Earth) formed out of the same material.

One way we already know Earth will affect Apophis is by changing its orbit. Currently, Apophis is categorized as an Aten-type asteroid, which is what we call the class of near-Earth objects that have a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth does. Apophis currently gets as far as 0.92 astronomical units (137.6 million km, or 85.5 million miles) from the sun. However, our planet will give Apophis a gravitational nudge that will enlarge its orbit to 1.1 astronomical units (164.6 million km, or 102 million miles), such that its orbital period becomes longer than Earth’s.

It will then be classed as an Apollo-type asteroid.

Ramses won’t be alone in tracking Apophis. NASA has repurposed their OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, 101955 Bennu, in 2023. However, the spacecraft, renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Apophis Explorer), won’t arrive at the asteroid until April 23, 2029, ten days after the close encounter with Earth. OSIRIS-APEX will initially perform a flyby of Apophis at a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the object, then return in June that year to settle into orbit around Apophis for an 18-month mission.

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Furthermore, the European Space Agency still plans on launching its Hera spacecraft in October 2024 to follow-up on the DART mission to the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. DART impacted the latter in a test of kinetic impactor capabilities for potentially changing a hazardous asteroid’s orbit around our planet. Hera will survey the binary asteroid system and observe the crater made by DART’s sacrifice to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition post-impact, so that we can place the results in context.

The more near-Earth asteroids like Dimorphos and Apophis that we study, the greater that context becomes. Perhaps, one day, the understanding that we have gained from these missions will indeed save our planet.

 

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McMaster Astronomy grad student takes a star turn in Killarney Provincial Park

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Astronomy PhD candidate Veronika Dornan served as the astronomer in residence at Killarney Provincial Park. She’ll be back again in October when the nights are longer (and bug free). Dornan has delivered dozens of talks and shows at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium and in the community. (Photos by Veronika Dornan)

Veronika Dornan followed up the April 8 total solar eclipse with another awe-inspiring celestial moment.

This time, the astronomy PhD candidate wasn’t cheering alongside thousands of people at McMaster — she was alone with a telescope in the heart of Killarney Provincial Park just before midnight.

Dornan had the park’s telescope pointed at one of the hundreds of globular star clusters that make up the Milky Way. She was seeing light from thousands of stars that had travelled more than 10,000 years to reach the Earth.

This time there was no cheering: All she could say was a quiet “wow”.

Dornan drove five hours north to spend a week at Killarney Park as the astronomer in residence. part of an outreach program run by the park in collaboration with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University.

Dornan applied because the program combines her two favourite things — astronomy and the great outdoors. While she’s a lifelong camper, hiker and canoeist, it was her first trip to Killarney.

Bruce Waters, who’s taught astronomy to the public since 1981 and co-founded Stars over Killarney, warned Dornan that once she went to the park, she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

The park lived up to the hype. Everywhere she looked was like a painting, something “a certain Group of Seven had already thought many times over.”

The dome telescopes at Killarney Provincial Park.

She spent her days hiking the Granite Ridge, Crack and Chikanishing trails and kayaking on George Lake.  At night, she went stargazing with campers — or at least tried to. The weather didn’t cooperate most evenings — instead of looking through the park’s two domed telescopes, Dornan improvised and gave talks in the amphitheatre beneath cloudy skies.

Dornan has delivered dozens of talks over the years in McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium and out in the community, but “it’s a bit more complicated when you’re talking about the stars while at the same time fighting for your life against swarms of bugs.”

When the campers called it a night and the clouds parted, Dornan spent hours observing the stars. “I seriously messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also gave astrophotography a try during her residency, capturing images of the Ring Nebula and the Great Hercules Cluster.

A star cluster image by Veronika Dornan

“People assume astronomers take their own photos. I needed quite a lot of guidance for how to take the images. It took a while to fiddle with the image properties, but I got my images.”

Dornan’s been invited back for another week-long residency in bug-free October, when longer nights offer more opportunities to explore and photograph the final frontier.

She’s aiming to defend her PhD thesis early next summer, then build a career that continues to combine research and outreach.

“Research leads to new discoveries which gives you exciting things to talk about. And if you’re not connecting with the public then what’s the point of doing research?”

 

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