Tuesday, March 31, 2009

New Screening for Early Detection of Macular Degeneration and Diabetic Retinopathy

A new camera screening device developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Southern California is being hailed as a low-cost option for early detection of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the number one cause of blindness today. The device can also detect diabetic retinopathy, which, along with AMD, often develops in patients with Type I or Type II diabetes as a result of decreased blood flow to the eye.

The camera works by scanning the eye and feeding information to a computer server at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Hamilton Eye Institute in Memphis, which then interprets the data and performs an automatic diagnosis.

The new screening technology was adapted from a program used to diagnose computer manufacturing problems. Ophthalmologist Ed Chaum worked with Kenneth Tobin, a researcher in the Measurement Science and Systems Engineering Division of Oak Ridge, to develop the program so that it could be used to interpret medical data and diagnose retinal disease.

Many people with diabetes avoid going to the doctor because they do not have health insurance, or because the costs associated with their medical care are too high. Half of all of those with diabetes do not have yearly eye screenings, and thus do not catch the onset of AMD or diabetic retinopathy until the disease has already done some damage to the eye. This is unfortunate to say the least, since early detection of eye disease is key to successful treatment and the preservation of vision.

Tobin said he envisions a day in which eye camera screening is a cost-effective, widely available choice for everyone, as easy as sitting down to use the blood pressure cuff at Wal-Mart or the local drugstore. For those with a family history of diabetes, the option of checking their vision regularly could mean the difference between healthy vision and blindness.

Researchers at ORNL and at the Doheny Eye Institute and Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California are also working to create smart implants that increase the supply of oxygen to the retina, which is typically depleted in those with diabetes. The implants contain electrodes designed to provide short, continuous pulses of oxygen to the retina and inhibit the production of harmful chlorine in the eye.

Tobin points out that the number of people with diabetes is increasing, and that since this trend is likely to continue technology "is critical because...we will need to be screening over one million patients every day worldwide by 2025."

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