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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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New technology gives a vision of hope

Rikako Takada

Dec. 19, 2017

Japan has been at the forefront of many of the latest developments in medical technology. Now a new hospital is using state-of-the-art techniques to treat people with visual impairments while giving them the support they need to return to normal life.

Kobe Eye Center opened this month in Western Japan. It provides a hub for cutting-edge research and treatment of various eye diseases.

From examinations to operations, the Center is equipped with all the latest technology. It's also researching treatments using iPS cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells, which can transform into any cell in the human body.

The cells are cultivated under highly controlled conditions. Skilled technicians have to spend months observing their development.

To make things more efficient, the Center plans to introduce Artificial Intelligence and robotics to the process.

One robot named "Mahoro" can move its arms like a human and uses them to handle equipment with precision. Now it is taking over tasks that were previously handled by skilled technicians.

“By transferring the researchers' expertise and experience to a robot, we can quantify each part of the process, like the angle, timing, force, and number of rotations," says Tohru Natsume, from the Robotic Biology Institute. "This makes it possible to visualize skilled techniques, but it also allows them to be performed at a higher level.”

Early next year, Mahoro is getting an upgrade that will enable it to monitor the growth of cells. By inputting lots of images of iPS cells into Mahoro, it will learn to judge the state of cells by itself.

The Eye Center was the brainchild of Dr. Masayo Takahashi, a leading researcher in iPS cells. She wants to provide the cutting-edge treatment to as many patients as possible.

Takahashi has already used iPS cells to treat an incurable eye disease called age-related macular degeneration. It causes the central area of a person’s field of view to become invisible or appear warped.

This is because of blood vessels invading the central portion of the retina. Takahashi’s treatment involves removing this portion, and replacing it with a retina made of iPS cells. Now she hopes to broaden the use of these techniques.

"My next step is to examine the effects of iPS cell transplants in different types of patients," she says. "I also want to expand the treatment to other varieties of eye disease in a few years."

The Eye Center is bringing hope to people suffering from visual impairments. Toshitaka Nakai has retinal pigment degeneration. This disease causes a portion of his retina to lose its function, which makes his field of vision become narrower.

Since being diagnosed 17 years ago, Nakai has lost 95% of his vision. There is still no cure for the disease.

But in January this year, Takahashi’s research team demonstrated a possible solution. When a retina made of iPS cells was transplanted into mice with the disease, it restored their field of view. Clinical trials on humans are expected to start in two years.

Nakai says he is grateful for the Eye Center's comprehensive support, which covers follow-up care as well as treatment.

“I think that people who still have some vision like me can benefit from this center," he says. "I think it will be a big help for visually impaired people.”

People like Nakai can take advantage of another of the Eye Center's facilities, its low vision care center. It includes an area for testing different kinds of white cane.

Users can practice walking around a course that features corners and changes in height. The training helps visually impaired people make the fullest use of their remaining sight.

The center's driving simulator also lets them check their proficiency behind the wheel. The Center plans to incorporate the results of its research into the simulator. Universities and car makers could also use the simulator to determine how much vision is needed to drive safely.

“Of course, regenerative medicine with iPS cells will develop further and become a good method for treating patients," she says. "But it will probably take another 20 years until it becomes a viable treatment.”

“On the other hand, machinery and AI are developing at an incredible rate, and the Eye Center will use every available method to achieve results," she adds. "It's not just about medicine, but taking a comprehensive approach for our patients.”