Engineers at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) normally design and make instruments to detect faint light from distant stars and galaxies. They are also currently collaborating with scientists from Cardiff University’s School of Optometry and Vision Sciences to develop a unique instrument, a ‘retinal densitometer’, which can pick up the earliest stages of AMD by measuring, in the minutest of detail, how the eye responds to light.
This project has been funded by the National Institute for Health Research’s Invention for Innovation (i4i) programme and also by STFC, through its Commercial Proof of Concept Fund. STFC was also responsible for initially identifying the need for, and setting up, the collaboration between Cardiff University and STFC though its Futures Programme.
Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: “Space technology doesn’t just tell us more about the universe – it also has applications right here on earth. 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 UK ATC said: “This is a fantastic example of how fundamental science, technology and engineering can have a huge positive effect on society when working in collaboration with academia and experts in the 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.”
AMD affects a small part of the retina at the back of the eye, the macula, which is used to see detail and colour. One of the earliest signs of AMD is a change in the way that the light sensitive pigments in the macula regenerate after exposure to light. The densitometer can assess this change by measuring, over time, the very small changes in the amount of light reflected by the retina after exposure to light.
Cardiff University’s Dr Tom Margrain, said: “The benefits to patients here are huge, but the benefit is not just societal, it is also economic. We may be living longer but this in turn increases the pressure on healthcare services. Our next steps will now be to get the densitometer ready for official clinical testing and then to take this through to full commercialisation. Ultimately our densitometer could be used in any optician’s clinic.”
Until very recently there have been few treatment options available for AMD, but some treatments to delay developments of early forms of the disease, and to manage it, are now being developed. Early diagnosis is the one of the most crucial factors for developing new treatments and improving the management of this disease, but it is extremely hard to detect in the early stages and current tests are relatively crude. Previous attempts at early detection techniques have been limited by the performance of the technology used to make the measurements.
The Retinal Densitometer works by measuring the way the eye “dark adapts” after exposure to a bright light. It has several distinct advantages when compared to existing detection techniques in terms of its sensitivity and ability to measure responses to light from different parts of the retina. It is also completely non-invasive unlike some techniques.
Early tests already carried out by the project team, on 10 patients with early stage AMD and 10 controls, have shown that the light changes on the macula can be highly accurately measured using this patented technology, and that it has a high ability to distinguish between affected and non-affected groups.
When light enters the eye it is focused onto the retina at the back of the eye. The retina includes a number of layers but the most important for vision is a layer made up of cells called photoreceptors, which are sensitive to light. The macula, which is about the size of a pinhead, is a specialised area of the retina that contains a few million specialised photoreceptor cells called cone cells. These cone cells function best in bright light levels and allow us to see fine detail for activities such as reading and writing and to recognise colours. Away from the central macula is the peripheral retina, composed mostly of the other type of photoreceptor called rod cells. They enable us to see when light is dim and provide peripheral vision, the sight you have out of the corner of your eye when looking straight ahead. When someone develops AMD, the cone cells in the macula area become damaged and stop working as well as they should, leading to gradual sight loss.
Follow us on Twitter at @STFC_MattersChris Jones
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University Chancellor Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise encompasses: the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences; and the College of Physical Sciences, along with a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff's three flagship Research Institutes are offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places. Cardiff University
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government’s strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR Website. The views expressed in this news release are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.
i4i is a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) programme that aims to support and advance the research and development of innovative healthcare technologies and their translation into the clinical environment, for the benefit of patients. The programme funds projects lasting 1-3 years. NIHR i4i supports collaborative research and development between at least two partners from industry, NHS organisations and universities or other Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in England and Wales. For a proposal to be eligible for an award, the project team must comprise researchers from at least two of these sectors. i4i Website
Last updated: 22 September 2017