About one in 4,000 people in the United States suffers from retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic disease of the retina that causes light-sensing cells to degenerate and eventually leads to vision impairment. Symptoms might start as night blindness.
Recent advances in optogenetics have opened the possibility of restoring light sensitivity to vision cells using a simple injection and gene-based therapy. But how can these newly programmed cells reconnect with the brain to process images? This is the million-dollar question.
Israeli researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa have found a futuristic and bionic way to bypass neural circuitry and directly stimulate restored vision cells with a computer-driven technique called holography.
The researchers have developed a tool to photo-stimulate retinal cells with precision and high resolution, suggesting that one day in the not-so-distant future, people blinded by RP may see beyond shadows once again.
“It’s something like Google Glass for the blind,” Prof. Shy Shoham from the Technion tells ISRAEL21c, referring to Google’s wearable computer with a head-mounted display, set to be released later this year.
“We did not develop optogenetics and it’s a young technology, but it is firmly established and the potential is recognized. What is missing, and what we are offering, is a powerful solution driving the neural networks of these optogenetically restored cells.”
Shoham explains, “What our system will do is activate these cells with patterns. It’s a system that drives the projection of ‘movies’ powerful enough to stimulate retinal cells artificially.”
Like any responsible scientist, Shoham, an engineer and lead scientist of this new research presented in Nature Communications, is not offering false hope to people who are already blind. Unfortunately, he cannot help them.
But if a significant financial investment were to be made in the project, “clear” results could be seen in the future.
“The basic idea of optogenetics is to take a light-sensitive protein from another organism, typically from algae or bacteria, and insert it into a target cell, and that photosensitizes the cell,” Shoham explains.
However, the genetically repaired cells are less sensitive to light than normal healthy retinal cells, so they need a bright light source — a laser, or in the new research project, a holograph — to be activated.
The researchers plan to develop a prosthetic headset that looks like the new Google Glass, or create an eyepiece that would translate visual scenes into light, which would stimulate the genetically altered cells.
The Israeli scientists used computer-generated holography to stimulate repaired retinas in mice. The light stimulus was intense, precise and capable of stimulating many cells at one time, which are all necessary for proper vision.
They previously tried lasers and digital displays used in projectors, but both approaches had their drawbacks.
“Lasers give intensity, but they can’t give the parallel projection” that would simultaneously stimulate all the cells needed to see a complete picture, says Shoham. “Holography is a way of getting the best of both worlds.”
This new approach could power new retina prostheses being tested in the United States. One called Argus II was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) early this year, but offers only rudimentary vision to the wearer.
“You need to be careful with these things so the technology doesn’t run ahead of us,” Shoham cautions. “The system we are working on can potentially restore vision that is very high quality. But it will take at least five to 10 years.”
The technology also has many potential applications in the field of virtual reality.
Two Israeli startup companies have signed promising cooperation agreements with Google and LinkedIn.
The first company, Graduway, has developed an internal social network for universities, which derives information from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The alumni network allows the institution’s graduates to keep in touch.
The company has signed a strategic agreement with LinkedIn, the professional social networking website which is valued at more than $18 billion and has some 200 million members.
As part of the agreement, Graduway users will be able to connect to LinkedIn and used the website to find a job and meet business partners.
Google has announced a partnership with Israeli company Gigya, which provides a “social infrastructure” for websites of major businesses, embedding elements related to social networks.
Some 1.5 billion people use Gigya’s tools, and the company’s customers include the Walmart and Adidas websites. Now Gigya will integrate elements from Google+ as well.
The Israel Antiquities Authority and Google Israel launched the Dead Sea Scrolls digital library on Tuesday.
The library, stored on Google servers, will eventually hold all of the tens of thousands of fragments of the scrolls in very high resolution. For now, some 4,000 scans of infrared photographs taken right after their discovery in the 1950s have been uploaded, as well as 1,000 new scans done in a lab specially constructed for this task by the Antiquities Authority.
The lab has a special camera, based on NASA technology, which captures every fragment 28 times in 12 different wavelengths of light. A computer processes each photo into a color photograph of unprecedented resolution, and each such file consists of 4-5 Gigabytes. The photograph shows not only the ancient letters but also the creases, scorched margins and ink spills. In addition, the fragments were photographed in infrared, revealing letters and words unseen by the naked human eye.
A team from Tel Aviv University has started working on software that will make it possible to play with the fragments so as to reconfigure them, because no one knows if the researchers of 60 years ago, who put the texts together out of even smaller fragments, got it right, and there may be other ways of combining them. Researchers hope to benefit from this example of crowdsourcing to solve the “ultimate puzzle” of 30,000 fragments that are 2,000 years old.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the Judean Wilderness in the 1940s and 1950s. Since then there were several attempts at preserving and documenting them, but most resulted in damage to the delicate goatskin scrolls. For example, adhesive tape – an exciting invention in the 1950s – was used on some fragments, causing serious damage decades later to these incredibly rare finds. Some 20 years ago, Israel was accused of keeping the scrolls out of the hands of scholars and all of humanity for a host of reasons, resulting in a slew of conspiracy theories. Since then, an enormous international project has been under way, as part of which the fragments were published in a scientific catalogue, but it is inaccessible and unintelligible to the public at large.
About two years ago, Google Israel and the Israel Antiquities Authority launched a joint project funded by the Leon Levy Foundation, the Arcadia Fund and the Rothschild Foundation. Beyond the act of making the scrolls available to the public, the goal of the project is to preserve the scrolls and the most accurate facsimiles of them for future generations. To date, some 2,000 of the 30,000 estimated fragments in the vaults of the Israel Antiquities Authority have been scanned using this special method. Of these, 1,000 have already been uploaded to the site. In a press conference given this morning, Pnina Shor, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls division in the Israel Antiquities Authority, estimated that all fragments will be available on the website within three years.
The scrolls contain different versions of Jewish sacred texts as well as sectarian scriptures penned by the writers of the scrolls. Among the fragments already uploaded are the first words of the book of Genesis, sections from the book of Deuteronomy (including the ten commandments), and fragments from tiny phylacteries. In addition to allowing visitors to look at and read the fragments, the new website allows text searches in Hebrew and in English translation, as well as placing the specific scroll at the site where it was first found, using Google’s mapping capabilities. In the future, other tools will be developed to help scholars and the public study the scrolls. The Israel Antiquities Authority hopes that the launch of the new site will lead to a new wave of scientific publications about the Dead Sea Scrolls. “It’s going to be possible to read the scrolls again. In terms of scholarship, the sky’s the limit,” said Shor.
This morning, Google officially opened its second Campus in the Israeli city. Dubbed a “one-floor event & community space and pre-accelerator program”, Google Campus TLV will cater to local early-stage startups and developers with tech talks, events, hackathons and whatnot.
The space measures 1,500 square metres in total.
The TLV Campus space will also feature a “device lab” that will give developers the chance to try out projects on a fairly wide range of smartphones and tablets, and entrepreneurs will get access to Google’s teams and other experts.
In addition, Google is working with existing incubators and accelerator programs to bring their startups to Campus for a “pre-accelerator initiative” dubbed Launch Pad, a two-week bootcamp for more than 100 startups each year.
Google’s Campus in Tel Aviv will be co-managed by Amir Shevat, Developer Relations Manager, and Eyal Miller, New Business Development Principal at Google Israel.
Google chairman Eric Schmidt, who visted Israel last week, posted some thoughts on Google + to elucidate about his trip and his perceptions about the “oversized impact” Israel could have on the future of world technology.
In his post, Schmidt specifically avoided discussing the Middle East conflict and instead praised Israel for its developments in technology, science and engineering. Schmidt made similar comments last Monday, when he spoke at the Big Tent conference in Tel Aviv.
“After a long trip through the Asian trouble spots, Israel felt very peaceful, and very much like Silicon Valley,” Schmidt wrote in his Google + post. “I won’t comment on the history, conflict or opposing views in the region which are well understood, or at least well covered if poorly understood. To see the tiny Old City of Jerusalem, crucially important to three world religions, is to understand why people have fought over centuries for this land.
“Israel has few natural resources and has about half of its GDP tied up in export oriented businesses. The country is simply too small and with little opportunity to cooperate in traditional business with its neighbors, Israel has become a high tech hub. Google has a large engineering and sales operation in Israel, whose achievements are definitely world-class.
“In our meetings four things became clear about Israel as a high tech, innovation engine,” wrote Schmidt, particularly “it’s commitment to universities and science… [that] The universal military service is integral to this process… [that] Israel technology benefits greatly from the Internet… [and that] The security situation may actually help as some told us that there is a ‘live for today’ attitude, taking more risks in business than other countries would.”
“We should expect much more investment in high technology in Israel, and many more startups as the next generation of the Internet unfolds.,” Schmidt added. “… For a small country, Israel will have an oversized impact on the evolution of the next stage of the technology we all use.”
During his address at the Big Tent conference last week, Schmidt made similar remarks, praising the quality of Israel’s engineers is very high, which he attributed to to the level of education in the country- though he suggested there was room for improvement – and to the training acquired in the army. He also praised local salespeople as among the best in the world, saying they continue to contribute to the company’s profits.
“We love Israel,” Schmidt told the crowd at the conference.