Of all the complications of diabetes, few are as devastating as diabetic retinopathy, a progressive eye disease that causes blurred vision and in some patients, blindness. By the time most patients recognize something’s wrong, it’s often too late for them to be treated effectively. As a result, diabetes is the leading cause of vision loss among adults over 20. More than 12,000 new cases of blindness each year are caused by diabetic retinopathy, according to the National Institutes of Health.
An ophthalmologist and a scientist from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee believe they can help doctors detect diabetic retinopathy long before the disease wreaks havoc on their patients’ vision. Their startup company, Automated Medical Diagnostics (AMDx), has developed software that can detect the early signs of diabetic retinopathy by comparing digital photos of a patient’s retina to images that represent various stages of diabetic eye disease. AMDx’s founders believe their technology will enable all health workers–even those who are not trained in eye care–to take retinal scans of any patient, zap them over the Internet to AMDx’s servers, and get a diagnosis back before the patient leaves the office. “We’re trying to show we can be as accurate as a trained ophthalmologist,” says Ken Tobin, AMDx co-founder and division director of measurement science and systems engineering at Oak Ridge.
AMDx’s technology was inspired by a system that Oak Ridge scientists originally developed to help semiconductor manufacturers analyze defects in computer chips. Their software essentially teaches computers a technique called “content-based image retrieval.” The system can take a single image of a chip and then sort through giant databases of other images to find similar visual patterns–a process that some chipmakers now use to spot problems and improve manufacturing methods.
In 2005, Tobin met Edward Chaum, an ophthalmologist and professor at the University of Tennessee’s Hamilton Eye Institute in Memphis. “Less than half of diabetics are screened in any given year for retinopathy, despite the fact that they are told they need regular eye exams,” Chaum says. Many patients don’t have health insurance, he says, or they just don’t want the hassle of traveling to see yet another specialist. But Chaum and Tobin realized that if primary care doctors could do basic eye screenings on diabetic patients, they might catch many more cases of retinopathy than are being detected today.