Advances in technology are doing wonders for our ability to diagnose and treat health conditions — detecting cancers much more quickly than before, or using machine learning to help families identify rare genetic disorders. But in many countries, particularly the US, such tech often comes with a hefty price tag — making it either unaffordable for patients to use, or unaffordable for health systems to purchase and routinely offer their patients.
Retinal scanners are one such piece of technology. Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) scanners can check for blindness, particularly through glaucomas and the increasingly common diabetic retinopathy. Machines typically cost $1000,000, meaning it’s only usually specialist eye centres that have them and their use does not form part of a regular screening exam.
Biomedical engineer Adam Wax, based at Duke University, thinks it’s time for this to change. Alongside former graduate student Sanghoon Kim, he’s produced a retinal scanner that is 15 times lighter than current commercial systems and will cost a tenth of the retail price.
It also does all of this without sacrificing imaging quality.
A press release reveals that in tests, the OCT scanner produced images of 120 retinas that were 95% as sharp as those taken by current commercial systems, which is sufficient to gain an accurate clinical diagnosis.
“Once you have lost vision, it’s very difficult to get it back, so the key to preventing blindness is early detection. Our goal is to make OCT drastically less expensive so more clinics can afford the devices, especially in global health settings,” says Wax.
The retinal scanner works by sending sound and light waves into the eye and measuring how long it takes for them to come back through a spectrometer. Wax and Kim have designed a new 3D printed type of spectrometer which is circular with a larger detector, which will leave the machine about the size of a lunch box and sold for less than $15,000.
“Right now OCT devices sit in their own room and require a PhD scientist to tweak them to get everything working just right,” Wax continued. “Ours can just sit on a shelf in the office and be taken down, used and put back without problems. We’ve scanned people in a Starbucks with it.”
The idea is that the machine, which is easy to manipulate, could be set up easily in smaller offices, improving patients’ access to OCT technology and contributing to saving sight nationally and worldwide.
Wax has set up a company to commercialise the device, Lumedica, with first-generation research instruments already on sale. “We hope we can save a lot of people’s sight by drastically increasing access to this technology,” he added.
Michael Acton Smith