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Coin-sized scanner to target blindness

A European group of scientists are working on the development of a breakthrough, compact, cost-effective retinal scanner that will play a key role in targeting the early diagnosis of retinal diseases that are worldwide leading causes of blindness. Funded by the Photonics PPP platform, OCTChip is set to revolutionise diagnosis of retinal diseases and prevent millions of cases of blindness.

Diabetic Retinopathy accounts for the leading cause of blindness, with 200 million cases worldwide, and 60 million affected Europeans. With an ageing population, higher life expectancies and rising levels of diabetes, the number of cases preventable blindness are increasing.

The retina, with a thickness of 0.25mm and composed of over 10 layers, is very difficult to access at the back of the eye with any other technology than OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography), the established method of diagnosis in eye-related diseases.

However, as Professor Wolfgang Drexler, Professor of Medical Physics and Head of Center for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering at the Medical University of Vienna, who heads the OCTChip project, observes:

“State-of-the-art OCT technology has its limitations: it is bulky, the size of a desk top and quite expensive, costing anything in the region of €100, 000 per unit. It can detect abnormalities but at the present moment, compact, cost effective versions that can be used outside of hospitals and in private practice in a hand held mode do not exist.”

“The core component of our OCTChip project targets the size of a 1 cent coin. It will reduce costs and is maintenance free. Hence retinal diseases like Diabetic Retinopathy and Glaucoma as well as other retina diseases that are worldwide leading causes for blindness might be diagnosed via screening with this cost-effective compact point-of-care version of OCT.”

“OCTChip fosters wide spread use to visualise and quantify the retina in more definition, so we can diagnose diseases better, quicker, and cheaper.” Professor Drexler said.

The long term potential for OCTChip is exciting: hand-held, wireless and robust, it will work via Bluetooth, on a mobile phone or a tablet, enabling improving healthcare in remote Third World areas. As a miniaturized imaging technique, the implications mean it could probably be used as a battery operated capsule for gastrointestinal diagnosis in the future.

It is believed that the OCTChip scanner can be made so user friendly that self-diagnosis will be possible. “Perhaps in the future this will be available in supermarkets, for self-diagnosis” said Professor Drexler.

The OCTChip team hopes to have refined their first prototype by end of 2017 and targets for mass commercialisation to begin around 2020.