MIRACULOUS VISION

This story by Kunal Borah, Assam Engineering College, was an entry in the Sci Fi Eclat contest held by IIT Guwahati for Techniche’ 2012

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ABSTRACT      

What initially seemed to be another dull scientific conference with her parents, soon manages to intrigue the protagonist. She listens with rapt attention to the girl Mauli Vashisht, who was once blind and now narrates how nanotechnology, a fledging science, has helped her regain her vision. As intricacies of this new and exciting field of innovation are laid bare by an imminent scientist, Dr. Jayanth Ramanarayan, who invented a technology that would allow a blind patient to see the world again, one wonders the possible impact it can have on human life. Was the technology used on Mauli worth a try or did it lead to serious implications later? In what way did this sophisticated science, not short of being a miracle, have an effect on the life of the protagonist? This story on the bliss of Nanotechnology is a heart-warming tale of how this new-age science can restore sight in blind people, and help one realise their dreams. As the story reaches its end, one is greeted by a dramatic twist.

 

The conference hall was buzzing with scores of people, most of them in well-pressed formal wear and sporting an air of brilliance with their looks. In fact, most of their scientists and people were connected with the realm of science. The organizers were busy making the last amends on the stage and the VIP enclosure. It was a big day today. My father told me that we were about to be part of a new dawn in the field of science. A new chapter in medical research would be scripted today! I wondered what the fuss was all about.

I was seated in one of the rows with my parents, coming all the way from Coimbatore in a somewhat tiring four hour journey. My parents have never missed an opportunity to attend conferences related to the field of science and bringing me along every time. They both loved science and felt that I would be influenced and inspired by the discussions that happened in such events. But, today, I was not in the mood of attending the event. I wished to eat out at the Chilli Snack with my parents.

“Papa, don’t you think we could have eaten out today instead of coming here?”

My father seemed a little startled with my question and replied, “Well it seems you don’t like being here. Should I get you a cold drink? It’s getting a little hot in here.”

I realised I shouldn’t have put up the question in the first place. He had made plans to attend this event two weeks ago and I did not want to upset him with my irritation.

“It’s ok, papa” I said, a little embarrassed. “I hope the event offers something special.”

“You will see beti.” My father whispered softly into my ear.

Suddenly, I heard the microphone come to life. A confident voice caught the attention of the audience. The event had finally started. It was about how an upcoming science, nanotechnology has been used to find out a path-breaking cure to blindness. I decided to give ears to the emcee. The conference finally gripped my interest!

As the guests were introduced, I clearly heard the name of Jayanth Ramanarayan, professor of Nano-technology at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and one of the pioneers in developing nano-cells to cure blindness in human beings. He was one of the few persons my father looked up to as a role-model and spoke to me in the leisure hours how he felt that this great person would one day stir up a revolution in medical diagnosis in our country. There were several other names of different scientists being called, but my ears skipped the detail.

The next moment the hall suddenly erupted with thunderous claps. I was not paying attention at that moment, so I could not make out the reason behind it. I gently poked my mother and asked her about the sudden applause. Amma said that the emcee had just spoken about the main attraction of the event. She was Mauli Vashisht, a blind person since birth, she could now see due to a certain invention churned out of nanotechnology by Dr. Jayanth Ramanarayan. A sheer wave of thrill ran through my body!

I then heard the girl speak, her voice brimming with joy and a sense of achievement. The speech she gave changed my life completely…

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I still find it tough to accept that I’m actually standing here to see all the people gathered here, admire the myriad of colours in this hall which would not have fit into my reality a few months ago. What nanotechnology has given me today is more than just a gift and I am overwhelmingly grateful to Ramanarayan sir for believing that his nano-cells could actually return sight to a blind person. Sir, thank you for giving me a new lease of life. As already mentioned by the host, I was born blind and the journey to this day has not been easy…

I still remember my school days when my best friend, Geeta and I used to sit in the school park and she would describe the scenery to me – beautiful nature, the different hues of hills, grasses, flowers and butterflies. She believed that even if I could not see anything, I could still picture the scene mentally. She would drag me to the local pond and recite the tales of the fishermen as if I could visualise them throwing their nets for a bountiful catch. Sometimes, she was unstoppable during a TV show; I barely managed to hear a word. After all, she was the commentator. She was, in fact, my sight, my guide to a world that I could only feel.

Years passed on. My days at school were soon to be over and I began to accept the harsh reality that being a blind girl, I couldn’t stand up to this world. My mother often lamented that no boy would want to marry a blind girl. I was in despair for some time.

Then one day, Geeta ran up to me and proclaimed in elation that her father had finally found a way to restore sight in blind individuals using nano-science. And I feel so thrilled to say that Geeta’s father is none other than Mr. JayanthRamanarayan. Sir, I would be really happy if you could brief everyone here about your breakthrough discovery. I am sure it will cause a sensation!

I heard the scientist walk up to the stage and tap the microphone. Amma mentioned that my father had moved to occupy the first row. I guess he was extremely excited to hear him speak. Mr. Ramanarayan finally released the details of his path-breaking research to the media and the world. And I was all ears to his speech…

Thank you Mauli, I feel so proud of you. Ladies and gentlemen, a big round of applause for this brave girl who never lost hopes and had faith in me that my discovery would allow her to see this world one day.

The hall thundered with the sound of clapping hands. I too joined in.

I had always been fascinated by the nano-world and the magic at the atomic level. During my days at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the year 2007, I was fortunate to be considered for the team that would work on restoration of blindness using nanotechnology. A group of scientists from the Hong Kong University had arrived at the institute and in collaboration with our team, successfully managed to cure blindness in hamsters using this science, an area that involved the manipulation of atoms and molecules.

First, they cut the optical nerve tract in hamsters to imitate the effect of a traumatic brain injury. Next, they injected the hamsters with a fluid containing synthetically made peptides. These peptides spontaneously bridged the gap between the nerves; restoring sight to the hamsters. I was mesmerised by the observation and imagined the limitless possibilities it could offer!

When I returned to India in 2009, my daughter Geeta asked me once, “Daddy is there any way you can help my friend Mauli? You know she is blind and from what I’ve figured out these days is that she doesn’t feel quite hopeful of her future due to her disability.” At first, I ignored the proposition; I had just returned from the States witnessing the restoration of blindness in hamsters, and I had not quite envisioned the application of the discovery on humans. But my daughter insisted that I at least make an effort and I had to oblige.

In those days, one of my scientist friends in Chennai was working on the prospect of preventing degeneration of the human eye using nanotechnology in combination with chemistry.  I contacted him and paid him a visit in his sprawling lab at Chennai. He told me that age-related blindness, cataract and other retinal diseases can be prevented and cured with the help of nanoparticles that carry therapeutic agents. All these days, people take medicines either orally or intravenously and seldom anyone knows how much of the medicine actually reaches the targeted tissue. However, with nanotechnology it is possible to create a nanoparticle that can sort of impersonate the medicine and easily reach the concerned tissue. As nanoparticles can permeate any membrane like the eye lens they would easily reach the tissue.

One of the journalists suddenly popped up a question to Mr. Ramanarayan, “Sir, so you actually worked on a medicine which can restore sight. But would it not have side-effects?”

JayanthRamanarayan perhaps did not like the interruption. Fumbling in a grunted tone over the mike, he resumed his speech, giving a reply to the curious journalist.

I suggest you allow me to complete my speech. I haven’t even arrived at my actual research. The application of nanotechnology to the field of medicine had bright prospects but a serious problem haunted the scientists at the Chennai laboratory. You see, each cell in the body had a marker, which needed to be identified for the affected cells and tissues to be treated. The nanoparticles carrying the therapeutic material would be administered intravenously into the patients’ blood system. The nanoparticles would embed themselves to the red blood corpuscles and be transported to different parts of the body. The specific cells which have been marked, would then accept the therapeutic agent on coming in contact with the RBCs. However, identifying the correct marker in the retinal cells in a blind person was a problem, on which a lot of research is still going on.

I realised that use of nanoparticles in this form was a futile endeavour. The focus should be on making something that could be permanently grafted in the eye so that there was no chance of it getting damaged or functionless. I thought of the idea of developing a nano-camera that could be implanted in the cornea or the retina in the eye, so that it could take in the rays and send a visual to the brain through nerve receptors. I took it as a challenge to work on such a possibility and help Mauli and other blind people like her get back their sight. After getting her parents’ consent on taking her with me to America for treatment, I finally left Indian soil in February 2010 with my daughter and Mauli.

Another journalist stood up and asked the scientist, “Sir, if I am right, the pair of glasses Miss Mauli is wearing now is your invention, isn’t it?”

Oh, you guessed it correctly. These glasses are a gift of nanotechnology and I have been able to develop it, thanks to my fellow scientists at the University of Utah in America. When I landed there with the two girls, I got quick news that the scientists at the institute had discovered that electrically stimulating the brains of blind patients generates small spots of white light called “phosphenes.” One of the scientists, Dr. Patrick Vaun did a lot of research on this field and made a tiny digital television camera mounted on eyeglasses. He called it the Nanotube. This device could relay information to a portable PC, worn on the patient’s belt. There, the information is translated into electrical signals which are sent via wires through a small incision in the skull to a plate of electrodes attached to the surface of the patient’s visual cortex. When equipped with the full unit, a patient sees a display of phosphenes, which gives the visual representation of the object or objects the eye focuses on.

Without any delay, I met Dr. Patrick and discussed with him the possibility of using nanoparticles that would repair damaged retinal and cortical cells in the blind patient, and then using his invention to help the person regain sight. He at first expressed doubt over the success of rebuilding damaged cells as it would be time-consuming and economically unfeasible. Mauli, however, implored us to give it a shot. I really thank her for at that moment, even I seemed to give up hope but her words spurred me to move ahead.

For around two weeks, we experimented in the university lab. I had called in a few scientists from the Hong Kong University too to aid us in our work. In the end, we managed to develop an electrode device which, rather than interfacing with the brain’s surface, penetrates the brain’s visual cortex, and is capable of stimulating individual neurons. Mauli volunteered for the surgery. I must say I had sweaty palms at that moment; I had a fear- what if the promise I made to my daughter and Mauli backfired?  The surgery went on for a tense four hours.  Using specially designed pipes, we had administered the peptide-rich nanoparticles into her optical tract the day before along with sending a tiny probe to analyse and see the particles getting into work. This probe was another invention made in the lab using a certain biomaterial enveloping a nano-sized camera that could focus to the cellular level. And we were overjoyed to find out that the optic nerve had been repaired! We then implanted the electrodes into the visual cortex and stimulated it with a minute electric charge. The rest of the procedure involved general eye surgery steps to close the incisions. After almost a day, Mauli regained her senses and I was a witness to this miracle. I asked her how she felt, to which she replied that she was eager to see the world.  I handed her the special glasses as they were the most essential part of the entire setup. And the rest is what you all can see now. Mauli can not only see today, but can perform like every normal human being. She soon plans to make my portrait in colour and I am looking forward to that day.

The sound of loud applause echoed throughout the hall. I wanted to meet both the scientist and Mauli. What I heard in the past two hours had literally driven me crazy!

My father rushed to me and took me by my hands. I asked him where he was taking me.

Beti, I talked with the organisers and they have allowed me to meet JayanthRamanarayan”, my father exclaimed in sheer joy. I knew where this was leading to and I too felt a raw sense of excitement.

 

Today I work as an independent wildlife photographer, getting to visit places where I wouldn’t have dreamt of twenty years back. I can now admire nature, the different hues of hills, grasses, flowers and butterflies. I still remember the night I met Mauli didi and Ramanarayan sir. What happened in the following years was no less a miracle for me. For a girl who was born blind, the only child of the parents who brought her to a conference that gifted her bliss of Nanotechnology.

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