GCU Vision Sciences behind new eye image bank

Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) Vision Sciences Department is behind a new world-leading project that could prevent common sight loss conditions by collecting eye images.

Professor Niall Strang, Research Lead for the Vision Research Group in GCU’s Research Centre for Health (ReaCH), and University of Edinburgh’s Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology Baljean Dhillon came up with the idea of creating the first Scotland-wide retinal image bank.

They launched the Scottish Collaborative Optometry-Ophthalmology Network e-Research (SCONe) with clinicians, academics, NHS, Chief Scientist Office, the Scottish Government and charities.

Eye experts at GCU and the University of Edinburgh have so far evaluated and transferred over 30,000 retinal images from four optometry practices in Scotland to the National Safe Haven – a high-powered computing and analysis facility run by Public Health Scotland – as part of the proof-of-concept project.

The first phase of research enabling early detection of the UK’s most common cause of blindness is near completion, as experts have warned the number of people with sight loss in Scotland will rise to over 200,000 in the next decade.

Now SCONe’s Chief Investigators Professors Strang and Dhillon are appealing for optometrists and ophthalmologists in Scotland to join their network and help spearhead innovation in eye care.

The project is funded by Sight Scotland, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd), Chief Scientist Office (CSO), NHS Lothian Charity, and The RS Macdonald Charitable Trust.

For the 180,000 people in Scotland living with a visual impairment currently, and the many more individuals who will be diagnosed with a sight loss condition in the coming years, the ability to detect sight loss conditions at the earliest stages is vital for better outcomes of treatments.

Professor Strang said: “In Scotland we’ve been taking photographs of the back of people’s eyes for over 10 years and we didn’t do anything with this huge set of images until now. A lot of these images will be very useful to predict changes earlier in the disease process.

“The plan is to gather all the data from optometry practices and put it into the National Safehaven which is a huge databank controlled by Public Health Scotland and the SCONe team will use artificial intelligence data analysis approaches to look for subtle changes in the eye.

“Optometrists in practice are often on their own and need to make clinical decisions themselves. Eventually we are hoping that they will be able to send us images of patients they are worried about and our analysis will provide feedback and support on what’s wrong with the eye or what they should do in terms of referrals.”

The world-leading resource, which does not share any personal identifiable data with researchers, is set to stand at the forefront of development of new technologies for detecting eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – the leading cause of blindness in the UK which can lead to rapid loss of central vision – in its earliest stages.

The retinal image research bank is one of the biggest community-acquired repositories in the world, holding the long-term potential to benefit not only patients in Scotland but have global impact for people with macular diseases.

Professor Dhillon said: “The development of this new retinal image bank has hugely exciting potential for the innovation of eye health, treatments and education, particularly for eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration.

“The long-term aim is a world-class resource that can increase our understanding of AMD progression, enable us to predict the progression of macular disease, and monitor the efficacy of emerging AMD therapies and treatments.

“With this knowledge, there would be the potential to develop new technologies for detecting early onset AMD and AMD management tools to help optometrists and patients.”

To find out more about this project and how optometrists can get involved, visit the SCONe website: https://www.ed.ac.uk/clinical-sciences/ophthalmology/scone

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