Lisa Kulik saw fireworks for the first time in nearly 30 years on July 4. The revelation was a result of the innovative retinal implant co-invented by Mark Humayun at the USC Eye Institute.
Kulik, 55, has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that progressively robs its victims of sight. On June 2, she became the first person west of the Mississippi to receive the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved Argus II retinal prosthesis — innovative wireless technology co-invented by Humayun, Cornelius Pings Professor of Biomedical Sciences and professor of ophthalmology, biomedical engineering, cell and neurobiology at Keck Medicine of USC and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
I’m hoping I will be able to see silhouettes of people, like my grandchildren, and be able to get around by myself.
When Kulik wore the Argus II to the July 4 celebration with her husband and niece, she didn’t expect to see anything. But when the fireworks went off, so did flashes in her field of vision.
“My husband and niece were more excited than I was,” she said. “I was seeing thick and thin flashes, and I knew it was the fireworks. I’ve also seen the moon, and I can see the contrast between the grass and the sidewalk.
“I’m hoping I will be able to see silhouettes of people, like my grandchildren, and be able to get around by myself,” she added. “Losing independence has been the hardest part [of being blind] for me. I’d like to be able to take a walk down the street.”
Kulik’s progress is encouraging to Humayun, who started developing the Argus II more than 20 years ago.
“She could see spots of light on the first day of activation, which is very exciting,” said Humayun, co-director of the USC Eye Institute. “That put her ahead of our expectations. Most of our patients haven’t seen for decades, and they have to relearn how to interpret visual signals, which takes quite a while. It’s like seeing a baby learn to crawl, then to walk, then to run.”
Kulik received the implant during a four-hour surgery performed by Lisa Olmos de Koo, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Keck School, with Humayun assisting.
The Arizona resident is now undergoing several months of follow-up testing while she trains her brain to see in a new way.
She is also participating in a study to determine whether partial restoration of vision has an impact on how the brain processes information. She returns to USC periodically for magnetic imaging resonation tests, as well as testing with the Argus II.