July 17, 2013
Macular Degeneration Test Could Come From Astronomy Engineers
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Engineers at the UK Astronomy Technology Center (UKATC), who are used to designing space-based telescopes, are applying their knowledge to develop a diagnostic test for Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD).
The engineers typically design and make instruments to detect faint light from distant stars and galaxies. However, they are collaborating with scientists from Cardiff University's School of Optometry and Vision Sciences to develop a "retinal densitometer," which can pick up the earliest stages of AMD by measuring how the eye responds to light.
Over 10 million people in the US are already living with AMD, which is more than all cancers combined and twice as many as those with Alzheimer's disease. AMD leads to the loss of the vision when looking at something directly ahead, at another person, or when reading or watching TV.
One of the earliest signs of AMD is a change in the way the light sensitive pigments in the macula regenerate after exposure to light. The densitometer developed by the team can assess this change by measuring the very small changes in the amount of light reflected by the retina after exposure.
The Retinal Densitometer measures the way the eye "dark adapts" after exposure to a bright light. It has several distinct advantages when compared to existing detection techniques, including its sensitivity and ability to measure responses to light from different parts of the retina.
Early tests with the new device on 10 patients with early stage AMD and 10 controls have shown that light changes in the macula can be highly accurately measured using this technology.
"Space technology doesn't just tell us more about the universe -- it also has applications right here on earth," said Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts. "This project is very promising for patients and shows that, by working across disciplines, scientists and engineers can develop innovative new solutions for a whole range of issues, including healthcare."
Dr Dave Melotte, Innovation Manager at the UKATC, said this project is a great example of how fundamental science, technology and engineering can have a big impact on society when working on collaboration with academia and experts in relevant fields.
"Astronomy technology and vision science might seem poles apart but put the right experts together and they are able to achieve things that would be impossible by either group in isolation," Melotte said.
The team said the next steps will be to get the densitometer ready for official clinical testing and then to take it to full commercialization. Ultimately, they said their device could be used in any optician's clinic.