Oak Ridge technology can save vision

18 Feb 2009, 1757 hrs IST, IANS

WASHINGTON: People at risk of becoming blind can now be screened almost instantaneously for eye diseases like diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.

Macular degeneration is a condition usually affecting older adults which results in a loss of vision at the centre of the visual field (the macula) because of damage to the retina.

Using a technology originally developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to understand semiconductor defects, three locations in Memphis have been equipped with digital cameras that take pictures of the retina.

Those images are relayed to a centre where they are analysed and the patient knows in minutes whether he or she needs additional medical attention.

"Once we've taken pictures of the eyes, we transmit that information to our database, where it is compared to thousands of images of known retinal disease states," said Ken Tobin, who led the ORNL team that developed the technology.

"From there, the computer system is able to determine whether the patient passes the screening or it provides a follow-up plan that includes seeing an ophthalmologist."

Already, this technology is making a difference as two patients at the Church Health Centre in Memphis have been identified as needing laser treatment for moderate and severe diabetic retinopathy and macular oedema, both conditions that can lead to blindness.

While some cameras have been installed, others will be installed at several rural and urban health care centres serving the Mississippi Delta.

Leading the medical portion of the project is Edward Chaum, an ophthalmologist and Plough Foundation professor of retinal diseases at the University of Tennessee Health Science Centre and Hamilton Eye Institute in Memphis, said an ORNL release.

"Right now, with 21 million diabetics in the United States, we need to be screening 4,00,000 patients for diabetic eye disease every week," Chaum said.

"Less than half of these diabetics receive the recommended annual eye exam, which is absolutely essential to minimise serious eye complications and potential blindness."