This NBC News story touts an artificial retina tested only in rodents for a common cause of blindness in older people.
One on hand, we applaud the story for making very clear that this work is still under development, has not been tested in humans, and has many hurdles to clear before any devices will be available for clinical use.
On the other hand, we’re dismayed by speculative statements in the story, and the over-optimistic headline, which makes the technology sound ready for prime time attention. Also, the descriptions of the new devices are superficial at best — they don’t provide much information for readers to understand what’s so great about them nor how they may (or may not?) revolutionize treatment of retinal degeneration.
It may well be exciting for laboratory bioengineers working on next-generation artificial retinas, but it’s hardly so for the average consumer of health news who is concerned about vision loss.
Age-related macular degeneration is a serious disease that affects an estimated 7.3 million Americans, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. As its name indicates, risk of developing the condition increase with age and overall prevalence is expected to increase as the U.S. population ages. The condition is progressive and causes blurred or foggy vision, especially in the center of one’s field of vision, and can lead to severe, irreversible vision loss.
Current treatments slow the progressiveness of the degeneration and impacts on vision, but there is no cure.
Both artificial retinas are in the earliest stages of development, still to be tested in humans. Even if there’s no product yet, we’d like to see stories make mention of costs. For instance, the cost of implanting the current FDA-approved artificial retina (mentioned in the article) might serve as a benchmark for estimating future cost of the new devices.
This is tricky because both devices are still under pre-clinical development. The story says that the Italian model allowed rats to detect light for up to six months. That’s interesting, but hard for readers to assess. And it’s irresponsible at this stage to extrapolate animal findings to people, especially with a headline like “This Tiny Device Is a ‘Game Changer’ for People Facing Blindness.” That’s far from certain.
The article makes no mention of harms. The story makes clear that the new devices have not been tested in humans, but there must be data on the risks of implanting the current devices, the FDA-approved artificial retinas mentioned in the article. A brief mention of such risks would help give readers a sense of the risk-benefit balance should these high-tech devices make it to the market in the coming years.
The story takes a gee-whiz tone with the new devices, quoting one independent source who called them “game changers.” But the details of how the game has been changed are quite limited. The Italian technology is wholly contained in the implant, unlike the current FDA-approved version that relies on an external camera. The Californian technology uses “silicon nanowires,” which certainly sounds cool. We wish the reporter had told us why these materials might improve functionality, beyond a vague assertion that they would. Also, additional details about the rat model finding would be helpful.
The story does not engage in disease mongering. The reader learns of the prevalence of age-related macular degeneration worldwide.
Three sources are quoted in the story. One researcher from the Italian team, one researcher from the Californian team, and one researcher who is independent of both research groups.
The story mentions current therapies for age-related macular degeneration, such as “vitamins, laser surgery, stem cell treatments, and implantable miniature telescopes.” The reader learns that these treatment slow the degenerative process but are not a cure. The story also mentions a currently available artificial retina.
It also could have mentioned that many patients with AMD will not need any interventions as the process is slow for most.
The story makes quite clear that the new devices are not yet available and likely won’t be for several years. We especially liked that this was brought up near the beginning of the story, versus at the end.
The story distinguishes the new devices from a current version by describing the external camera required by the FDA-approved artificial retina. These experimental devices are designed to stimulate still-functioning retinal neurons in the diseased eye.
This is a barely passing satisfactory, since this story contains one independent source who wasn’t in either of the two releases used for this story.
But, it relies heavily on the news releases regardless. For example, this quote appears both in the UCSD news release and the news story (but isn’t attributed to the news release in the story):
“We want to create a new class of devices with drastically improved capabilities to help people with impaired vision,” Silva said.