NEW technology is offering fresh hope to thousands of people who have lost their sight.
Those left blind by an inherited eye condition now have the hope of some of their sight being restored.
Trials involving a microchip implanted in the eye have enabled some of those who lost their sight through retinitis pigmentosa to be able to identify a fork and read a clock's hands.
An application to license the device is expected to be made in 2013 and, depending on whether is to deemed useful and safe, it could be available generally at the end of next year.
Speaking at a conference in Dublin, Prof Eberhart Zrenner of the University of Tubingen in Germany, who developed the device, said it could produce black and white images, similar to an old television.
"The power is transmitted under the skin. We have done two studies so far on completely blind people.
"The microchip, which can be left in the eye permanently, has 1,500 electrodes which are implanted below the retina.
"It is not suitable for people left blind by glaucoma, trauma or diabetes. It is essential that somebody still has their inner retina," he told the conference in Dublin organised by Fighting Blindness, the charity which funds research.
Retinitis pigmentosa covers a group of hereditary eye disorders which affect the retina , the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye.
It leaves sufferers with gradual but progressive sight loss.
There are 100,000 people who suffer from the condition in Europe and 10-15pc of these are blind.
Prof Zrenner said it could strike people in their 30s. He began the trials in 2005 by inserting the implant in 11 patients. One was subsequently able to read the hands of the clock, see shades of grey, find and identify tableware and combine the letters of the alphabet to form words.
Prof Zrenner has refined the device since and some patients, he said, have even been able to see faces and expressions.
Avril Dail, the chief executive of Fighting Blindness, said that Ireland had contributed to the new research through the work of the Tyndall Institute, a part of University College Cork.
"These trials reiterate the importance of patient involvement in advancing medical research and moving even closer to treatments and cures for vision loss."
The public is invited to attend a free meeting at 10.30am today at the Certus head office, 124-127 St Stephen's Green, Dublin to find out more.