With new technology, clearer pictures of the eye help doctors detect cardiovascular and other major diseases
Imagine a full medical check-up that simply involves taking a picture of the eyes. No blood taken or other invasive tests, and the scans are analysed with the results ready shortly after. Such a future isn’t far away. A pilot programme to use new eye imaging technology to screen patients for major diseases will start later this year.
Professor Wong Tien Yin, Director, Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI), the research arm of Singapore National Eye Centre, and Director of the recently launched $5 million Singapore Advanced Imaging Laboratory for Ocular Research, said: “The eye provides a unique model to study different diseases, but it isn’t easy to do this without novel imaging techniques. Our new technology will definitely advance this field.”
The software was developed as a result of a five-year collaboration between Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Institute for Infocomm Research, National University of Singapore’s School of Computer Science and SERI.
When launched, eye imaging facilities will be available at select polyclinics. Images from the polyclinics will be transmitted to Singapore Advanced Imaging Laboratory for Ocular Research, where they will be assessed. Experts at the laboratory will analyse the scans and generate reports with recommendations for preventive treatment or therapeutic action.
The new ocular imaging technology is causing a stir in the wider medical community due to its diagnostic implications – especially relating to cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and stroke.
According to Prof Wong, using retinal scans to screen people for chronic diseases can improve the precision of identifying high-risk patients, and potentially prevent unnecessary tests and medication costs.
Although scans of the brain and other parts of the body (such as an angiogram to diagnose heart disease) give doctors a clearer picture of a problem, they are often expensive and invasive. Retinal imaging, however, is cheaper and can be done in minutes during a routine check-up for diabetes or high blood pressure. If scan results show potential risk, patients are sent for investigative tests, which will determine the diagnosis and establish the most appropriate form of treatment.
More importantly, retinal imaging helps detect diseases early. For example, certain eye abnormalities can predict the risk of cardiovascular disease and alert doctors to a patient’s risk of stroke up to three years in advance.
Through Singapore Advanced Imaging Laboratory for Ocular Research, a national system for ocular imaging could be developed to capture and analyse real time eye images in a cost-effective way.
Said Prof Wong: “The eye offers a clear window into the body. It now provides accurate information to help doctors make more informed decisions about an individual’s health.”
Pilot project on glaucoma
Starting later this year, retinal imaging will be used to help detect glaucoma, an eye condition affecting 3 per cent of Singaporeans above 40 years of age and 10 per cent of those above 70. Glaucoma is the leading irreversible cause of blindness worldwide.
A recent Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI ) study revealed that up to 90 per cent of those with glaucoma are unaware they have the condition as it is often perceived as a natural part of ageing. By making ocular imaging facilities easily accessible and affordable, doctors expect more individuals will be screened.
Said Professor Wong Tien Yin, Director, SERI and Singapore Advanced Imaging Laboratory for Ocular Research: “Glaucoma is the silent ‘thief of sight’. By the time patients have visual symptoms, they would have lost more than 80 per cent of their vision. This is why early screening is vital.”
Experts hope to provide an effective risk-free monitoring method for people whose glaucoma is stable and who may not require immediate treatment.