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AI predicts condition that can cause blindness

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An AI-supported eye test can be used to predict a condition that can lead to blindness.

Detection of Apoptosis in Retinal Cells (DARC) retinal imaging technology is able to identify areas of the eye that were showing signs of geographic atrophy (GA) – a common condition that causes reduced vision and blindness.

Researchers believe this technology, tested in a clinical trial of 113 patients, could be used as a screening test for GA and help advance the development of new treatments for the disease. 

DARC allows the visualisation of sick and dying cells on the retina and rather than providing an estimate of healthy cells, DARC highlights unhealthy and sick cells, to give an indication of disease activity. An AI algorithm was developed by researchers at Imperial College London and UCL to rigorously count and assess the DARC spots, as specialists often disagree when viewing the same scans.

At present, a lack of detectable early symptoms and predictors of disease means that it is difficult to identify GA early enough to avoid any vision loss, and GA is often diagnosed at a late stage.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the commonest cause of blindness in over-55s and GA is an advanced form of AMD. GA develops over several years and can result in progressive and irreversible loss of sight. Although there is no cure, early detection is very important because there are potential treatments that could prevent severe vision loss, or slow the disease’s progression, such as eye injections and tablets.

GA affects 700,000 people in the UK, a figure which is expected to double in the next 25 years.

Professor Francesca Cordeiro, lead author of the study, said: “Geographic atrophy is one of the leading causes of reduced vision, and in some cases blindness, in the developed world.  It can significantly impact patients’ quality of life as tasks such as reading, driving and even recognising familiar faces become more difficult as the disease advances.

“As life expectancy in developed countries continues to increase, the incidence of GA has grown.

“Early detection is a key defence against this disease but as symptoms develop over several years, the condition is often picked up once the disease has progressed to a more advanced stage.

“Our study is the first to show that DARC technology can be used to predict whether a patient is at risk of developing GA.  

“These findings will help clinicians intervene with treatments to slow down vision loss and manage the condition at an early stage. We also hope that this technology can be rolled out onto high street opticians and used as a screening test in primary care settings.”

The research team now aim to further validate their results in larger clinical trials which will start in the UK later this year.

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