Better, Stronger, Faster, etc. Once reserved for $6 million megababes, bionics for the rest of us are finally here.
(Business 2.0) – Bionics used to be the stuff of TV fantasy--a 1970s plot device about humans who received mechanical implants to become, well, Lindsay Wagner with reverb sound effects. It took three decades, but today we really do have the technology.
Case in point: Optobionics of Naperville, Ill., whose bionic retina is designed to help the blind see. Just 2 millimeters in diameter, the tiny artificial retina can be surgically implanted in damaged eye tissue, where it converts light into signals that travel to the brain along the optic nerve. Though the resulting image is blurry and diffuse, the technology enables patients to discern shapes, light, and shadows. Just as impressive, the retinal chip is powered by the light that enters the patient's eye.
With preliminary clinical trials under way, Optobionics could bring its artificial retina to market within a decade. But for hearing-impaired patients, help is already here. The Clarion CII Bionic Ear from California-based Advanced Bionics links an external microphone to a chip implanted in the skull. The processor sends signals to the brain via the cochlear nerve.
Almost 65,000 patients have already received bionic ears. Radio host Rush Limbaugh reported dramatic hearing improvement after receiving a Clarion CII. Other Advanced Bionics products in development include a tiny neurostimulator, called the Bion, that's designed to treat urinary incontinence and even erectile dysfunction. Eventually the Bion may also help patients regain functional control of paralyzed limbs.
There's just one catch--bionics still don't come cheap. Cochlear implants, for example, cost upwards of $50,000 per ear. But hey, that's an awful lot less than $6 million. --JOHN PACZKOWSKI