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The Closest Thing to The Six Million Dollar Man

July 21st (my birthday) saw the world’s press assemble at the Manchester Royal Infirmary to be told that, for the first time, a patient with dry AMD – Ray Flynn – had received a retinal prosthesis. Implanted by a team of surgeons led by the tremendously gifted Paulo Stanga, the world learned from both men the outcome of the procedure: success. Ray received some degree of central vision from the implant, augmenting the remains of peripheral vision. Happily, this had already led to small, but functional improvements in his vision.

I have two confessions to make. The first: the realization that Ray was the first person in the world to combine artificial and (the remains of his) natural vision sparked a bit of excitement in me – above and beyond the fact that this implant made Ray a Cyborg. My PhD was in developmental neuroscience, where I examined the plasticity of the somatosensory system, so it was fun pondering how Ray’s 80-year old brain might adapt to the new input to the visual system.

The second confession: I wasn’t able to make it. My colleague Michael had the pleasure of meeting not only Ray and Paulo, but also journalists from Associated Press, the BBC, and most of the UK’s national newspapers. He came back with plenty of copy, photos, figures and gossip. Superb.

It was interesting to see how the non-specialist media reported on a story that concerned ophthalmology. Like all of the other major media outlets present, we had prepared copy to go live when the news embargo was lifted on July 22nd, initially via the 140 characters-or-less medium of Twitter. Some of our proposed tweets used the words “bionic eye”. Clearly, my birthday had made me an older and grumpier pedant than before. I immediately vetoed the use of that phrase: eyes are more than just a retina. Further, Googling around to justify my decision, I found: “Bionic implants differ from mere prostheses by mimicking the original function very closely, or even surpassing it.” Groundbreaking as they are, no retinal prosthesis can offer that today – or likely ever will.

So how did the lay press do? Very well. Some reported the science. Others went for the human angle, with most combining both perspectives. The vast majority failed to mention that many patients blinded by retinitis pigmentosa have already successfully received retinal implants. Almost all of the headlines missed these subtleties. But all – literally all – used “bionic eye”.
“Bionic eye implant world first” (BBC News). “British man given world’s first bionic eye” (The Guardian). “Bionic eye helps man see in first transplant of its kind (even with his eyes shut)” (The Independent). I could go on. What did I learn? You can’t win them all.

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About the Author
Mark Hillen

I spent seven years as a medical writer, writing primary and review manuscripts, congress presentations and marketing materials for numerous – and mostly German – pharmaceutical companies. Prior to my adventures in medical communications, I was a Wellcome Trust PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

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