USC Eye Institute patient Terry Byland recently became the first person in the world to have two retinal prostheses – one in each eye – and his progress regaining some sight signals hope for people going blind from retinitis pigmentosa.

“I just can’t get over what I can see, and all the things I’ve seen so far,” said Byland, 66, who lives in Riverside.

The reason: the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis system, the first FDA-approved implanted device to reestablish some sight in blind patients, giving them the ability to perceive images and movement.

Like most people with retinitis pigmentosa, Byland experienced gradual loss of sight, going completely blind at age 45, when his youngest son was 5. He had to retire from a job he loved, selling power tools.

“It’s one thing to give up driving, but it’s another thing to give up your work,” Byland said. “My co-workers were like a second family. I struggled with depression and mood swings. It’s paralyzing to lose your sight.”

Byland was part of the clinical trial for the original prosthesis, Argus I, from 2004 to 2010. His right eye was implanted with a 16-electrode retinal prosthesis on June 23, 2004.

“That study gave me a sense of worth,” Byland said. “The biggest thing for me was to see how far we could go before we hit that wall. The prosthesis allows more independence. And the more independent you are, the happier you are.”

“Terry is a true pioneer,” said Mark Humayun, MD, PhD, co-inventor of the device, who holds joint appointments at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “His work with the first-generation implant helped our team develop the FDA-approved Argus II. For him to enjoy the benefit of this smaller, better device is gratifying.”

Terry Byland wears the Argus II device as he speaks with physician Lisa Olmos de Koo of the USC Eye Institute, along with his wife Sue and son Daniel. (photo Alison Trinidad)

Terry Byland wears the Argus II device as he speaks with physician Lisa Olmos de Koo of the USC Eye Institute, along with his wife Sue and son Daniel. (photo by Alison Trinidad)

Byland’s left eye was implanted with the new 60-electrode Argus II on June 22 — almost 11 years to the day from the first implant — by Lisa Olmos de Koo, MD, MBA, of the USC Eye Institute.

“Once the Argus II was activated, I was immediately able to see what it took the original device more than two years to let me see,” Byland said.

“The Argus II uses software that we can upgrade as we go,” said Olmos de Koo, who is assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “As there are new innovations in image processing technology, we can continue to introduce new features that might help improve the way a patient can see in the future.”

The Argus II helps patients recognize large letters, locate the position of objects and more. It restores some visual capabilities for patients whose blindness is caused by retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited retinal degenerative disease that affects about 100,000 people nationwide.

The system includes a small video camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses, a video processing unit that transforms images from the camera into wirelessly transmitted electronic signals and an implanted retinal prosthesis (artificial retina) to stimulate visual neurons. The receiver sends signals to the retina that travel through the optic nerve to the brain, where they can be interpreted as a visual picture.

The external device runs on rechargeable battery packs, and each battery pack provides four to six hours of operation. Byland wears it as often as he can, especially when he goes out. The more that he wears it, the more he is able to see. Though he has a retinal prosthesis in each eye, he can only use one at a time.

The Argus II is manufactured by Sylmar-based Second Sight. It is the result of a close collaboration among the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the USC Eye Institute and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. It is available to qualified patients at Keck Medical Center of USC.

Byland celebrated his 29th anniversary with wife Sue within days of getting the Argus II implant. He is hopeful of further improvements in their lives.

“I am looking forward to the progression of seeing more,” he said.

— Meg Aldrich