Mark Humayun
Mark Humayun

A Pakistani-American has won the US highest award for technology achievement. Mark Humayun is to receive the prestigious National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama. It is a “testament to American ingenuity,” announced Obama. Mark Humayun has developed Argus II, commonly known as the ‘bionic eye’. It restores vision to most blind people. By merging medical science and engineering, Mark’s invention is a miracle for people suffering from inherited retinal degenerative disease that leads to blindness in old age. “A camera mounted on special glasses sends a signal to an electronic receiver with electrodes that are implanted in and around the eye. The electrodes send signals to the retina that stimulate the retina and then these retinal impulses travel through the optic nerve to the brain where they are interpreted as images.”

Voilà! Seeing is believing, literally. The bionic eye has helped thousands of patients with the gift of sight.

The world is aging. As modern medicine enables people to live longer, people over 65 are the fastest growing part of the population. The number one threat that older people identify is — not Alzheimer’s — but losing their sight. Nobody wants to become a burden on others. People over the age of 65 utilise ophthalmology services 10 times more than people below 65, according to an estimate.

Mark Humayun is a chip off the old block. He has created the ‘bionic eye’ to destroy the terror of blindness by helping thousands of patients with the gift of sight

As one of the heroes of the 21st century, Mark Humayun leads the Eye Institute of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he is Professor of Ophthalmology and Biomedical Engineering. So who is this 53-year-old ophthalmologist who does Pakistan proud? Following are his answers to my questions that throw light on him.

AN: Who is Mark Humayun?

MH: Born in Pakistan as Salman Humayun (my full name now is Mark Salman Humayun), I am the son of Mohammad Humayun, and grandson of Col Ilahi Bakhsh. The Humayun family came to America in 1972 and I completed my education in the US, culminating in getting an MD degree from Duke University, a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from University of North Carolina and also advanced clinical training in ophthalmology at Duke Medical Center as well as the Johns Hopkins Hospital.  

AN: So you are a chip off the old block? Your paternal grandfather was the personal physician to Jinnah. We have read Dr Ilahi Bakhsh’s book With the Quaid-i-Azam during his Last Days that gives a first-hand account of the illness and death of the Quaid. He was a medical visionary, remembered for his lifelong care of the neediest as well as for his treatment of the Quaid, Sir Allama Iqbal and Sir Abdul Qadir.

MH: My grandfather Lt. Col. Dr Ilahi Bakhsh, MD, MRCP, was born in 1904 in Chak Mughlani, district Jullundur, East Punjab to a family of eye specialist Hakims. A direct ancestor had been the personal physician to the ruler of the Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. At age 43, he became the first Muslim to be appointed principal of King Edward Medical College in Lahore at a time when the entire British and Hindu faculty had just left Pakistan after Partition. Dr Ilahi Bakhsh led the Herculean task of not only rebuilding the college, but also leading the development of medical education throughout Pakistan. 

AN: Surely you must have heard people comment on the remarkable resemblance between you and your grandfather, especially the eyes?

MH: Indeed.

AN: What is the driving force behind your soaring success and the recognition you’ve received from President Obama?

MH: My maternal grandmother, Tasleem Khattak, started to go blind from complications of diabetes during my medical school and it made me decide to go into ophthalmology and to develop cures for blindness. By the way, my maternal grandfather was Mohammad Aslam Khan Khattak, who was the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then NWFP) under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later the Speaker of the National Assembly under Ziaul Haq.

During the almost 30-year journey that started in 1987, I have had the good fortune to work with many talented colleagues who have helped me achieve the final goal of developing the world’s first implantable computer chip for the eye to restore sight to patients with certain type of blindness (retinal blindness). Alfred Mann was of particular help as he started a company based on my idea, which enabled the bionic eye to be commercialised as the ‘ARGUS II retinal implant.’ 

AN: How many people do you hope can see with the bionic eye?

MH: The bionic eye can help millions worldwide who suffer from retinal blindness, damage to the light sensing cells; the photoreceptors (rods and cones). The most common indication so far has been to help patients with inherited blindness caused by a disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa.  

AN: Outside America, how many countries around the world use or plan to use your invention? 

MH: Outside the US, the invention is already available in the UK, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It seems that a new country is added every month that approves the Argus II or the bionic eye.

AN: How can Pakistanis benefit from your invention?

MH: Pakistanis with retinal blindness especially Retinitis Pigmentosa can benefit greatly. The device would have to be either approved in Pakistan by the government or the patients would have to travel to one of the countries in which the device is already approved. 

Testifying to Mark Humayun’s genius is Farid Hassan, former Chairman of Bausch and Lomb, a global leader in eye care. This helped improve the access and affordability of cataract surgery. By simplifying procedures, Mark worked to make cataract surgery accessible to hundreds of millions of potential seniors around the world. “He’s not only a compassionate surgeon, he’s a passionate innovator who keeps driving forward with cutting edge science,” says Hassan. “My personal admiration for Mark went up when I saw him fearless in mobilising disruptive innovation [Disruptive innovation is the introduction of new technologies in an effort to promote change and gain advantage over the competition] to destroy the terror of blindness.”

For Mark, asserts Hassan, his first duty is to help patients waiting to be cured. “He does not make them wait too long ... so, the biggest descriptor for Mark is that he’s a humanitarian!”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 28th, 2016


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