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Allen Zderad Is the First Minnesotan to Have a Bionic Eye Installed

Science is amazing

Science is amazing

If you haven't been awed by science lately, consider the miracle of the bionic eye. Earlier this month Dr. Raymond Iezzi at the Mayo Clinic successfully installed a tiny array containing 60 electrodes inside a blind man's eye, and attached a connected antenna and small electronics pack to the outside of the eye.

Video streaming from a camera mounted on special glasses is routed through a hip-mounted computer system the size of a deck of cards, then it's wirelessly transmitted to the antenna attached to the eye. (Watch an animation of the process here)

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Dr. Iezzi's operation worked, restoring a rudimentary field of vision to Allen Zderad, a 68-year-old man whose vision deteriorated into blindness over the last 20-25 years.

"It's crude, but it's significant. It'll work!" he exclaims after seeing his wife, Carmen, for the first time in 10 years.

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Zderad has only had the bionic eye for a few weeks and says it's still taking some time to get adjusted.

"From a functional standpoint it's kind of evolving," he says. "It's exciting; I've really only had it for about two weeks so I've been using it in everyday situations to navigate around the house, locate things in the kitchen and on the dining room table, vacuuming, and that sort of thing," he says.

Believe it or not, the bionic eye was not an easy thing to build. The concept was first floated at Duke University back in the early 1990s, then it moved to Johns Hopkins, and the researchers involved got serious and started their own company called Second Sight in 1998.

Since then Second Sight Vice President of Business Development Brian Mech says the company sunk more than $200 million into the system, which is named Argus II. It was approved by the FDA in February 2013, and now more than 100 people worldwide have shelled out $144,000 to buy one.

The Argus II is amazing, but it's a long way from 20/20 vision. Mech said the vision is more like looking at pixels on a low-resolution scoreboard. Researchers at Second Sight are working on upgrading Argus II to show color, and are beginning to test an implant that has four times higher definition, but those are likely years from approval.

Zderad was eager to try out the new procedure after spending decades working at 3M as a chemist and mathematician.

"I've been involved in research and technology and science-type things my entire life, so I know about experimentation and pioneering products and so on," he says. "I knew some of the risks, but somebody had to be first and I was happy to take advantage of it."

Zderad was the 15th person in the U.S. and first in Minnesota to get the Argus II. Mayo approached him after his 13-year-old grandson was diagnosed with the same degenerative eye disease he has, called Retinitis Pigmentosa.

He can only run the Argus II in 15-20 minute intervals while he builds up parts of his brain that have been long dormant.

"It's simple things like that you really take for granted as a sighted person, like walking through doors without having to reach and touch," he said.

Send news tips to Ben Johnson.