A Quebec mother of four can partially see again thanks to a "bionic eye" that was implanted in March in the first such operation of its kind in the province.

Sandra Cassell was diagnosed in 2001 with retinitis pigmentosa, a form of retinal dystrophy that affects around 3,000 Quebecers.

The illness degrades vision to the point of near total blindness.

Cassell said she was determined to find some way to restore her vision and see her youngest child for the first time.

"The older children, I had seen them and had an image in my head, but I'd never seen my baby," she said.

Her research led her to the American company Second Sight, which was developing a retinal prosthesis called Argus II.

The device consists of a camera that is attached to glasses and connected to a chip grafted onto the retina of the eye.

The images captured by the camera are converted into a series of electrical pulses that are transmitted to the chip.

"The goal of these pulses is to stimulate the cells still alive in the retina and bypass those that have died," explains Dr. Cynthia Qian, an ophthalmologist specializing in vitreoretinal surgery.

"This prosthesis can offer the chance to have a functional vision again."

'Just incredible'

Argus II doesn't completely restore vision, but it allows patients to distinguish contours and recognize shapes and gives a visually impaired person the opportunity to carry out daily activities.

"When my Argus was turned on for the first time, I was able to see [my youngest child] for the first time and it was just incredible," she said. "I can't even begin to explain how it made me feel as a mother."

Sandra Cassell

The Argus II prosthesis now lets Sandra Cassell see her youngest son. (Radio-Canada)

"Without my Argus, I see nothing. With him, I see, yes, in a different way, but it gives me a lot of hope," Cassell said.

The roughly four-hour procedure was conducted by Dr. Flavio Rezende, an ophthalmologist and retinal specialist at the Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, which is the only hospital in Quebec where the surgery is performed.

"It's touching … we are now able to offer this to people who have been living in darkness."

Since the operation, Cassell has spent hours learning how to see again, including recognizing forms and judging distances.

Dr. Rezende and his team at the Université de Montréal's Ophthalmology Centre are now trying to push this technology even further.

Work on a "second generation" prosthesis is underway, in collaboration with the University of Melbourne in Australia.

"Colour is what everybody is asking for," Rezende said.

Based on a text by Radio-Canada's Valérie Boisclair