Daniel Fletcher and his students developed the handheld ophthalmoscope by pairing the imaging capabilities of a smartphone with software that is designed to examine the retina.
“The advanced technology built into a cellphone is allowing us to scale down what would normally be much larger medical devices,” Fletcher said in a press release. “The key is the phone, which we modify with hardware and software to make it a tool for physicians, and eventually consumers.”
The device, known as the RetinaScope, allows a doctor to differentiate between a healthy retina and one that is in the early stages of retinopathy.
Retinopathy is often a complication of diabetes. It affects the blood vessels in the light-sensitive tissue of the retina and causes vision loss in diabetics while also being the leading cause of vision impairment and blindness in working-age adults, according to the National Eye Institute. There are more than 7 million people with diabetic retinopathy today.
The traditional exam to determine retinopathy is currently only performed by eye specialists who have to use tabletop ophthalmoscopes to view the branching of the retina’s blood vessels.
“This device can cut out a step,” said Fletcher. “So your primary care doctor can screen for retinal abnormalities during a regular checkup. If something indicates there is a problem, then you can be referred to an ophthalmologist.”
The RetinaScope has gone through pilot studies at medical centers at the University of Michigan and Washington University in St. Louis. The results have shown that the device is practical and reliable as a screening tool for retinal diseases.
“One big challenge, as with any medical technology, will be developing a business model that will work with insurance companies,” Fletcher said. “We’ve made a lot of progress on the technical side, but moving into the commercial work, getting it into broader use, that’s a different issue.”
Fletcher has received support from a Bakar Fellows Program to help fund the device to commercialize it.
“I think that’s exactly what the Bakar funding can do – help us refine the technology and clinical use case so that we can come up with a viable business plan that sustainably increases access to quality eye care,” said Fletcher.
This device isn’t the first smartphone-enabled medical device that Fletcher’s lab has developed. In 2009, his team created a cellphone-based otoscope that detects ear infections. After the development, the group formed a startup called CellScope to bring the device to the market.
“As a kid, I had a lot of ear infections. My parents would take me to the doctor, who would stick a little magnifier into your ear and device whether you have something that needs to be treated or not – just by looking,” Fletcher said. “Why not use the camera of your phone for that purpose, in the comfort of your own home?”
Fletcher plans to make more mobile diagnostic devices and care that are less expensive and more accessible to developing countries. His team is currently working on finding a treatment for river blindness in West Africa by using a portable smartphone-based microscope called the LoaScope to example a pinprick of blood to see if a drug can be safely used to treat river blindness.
“Just as they have done for communication, mobile phones can now do for healthcare, making high quality health disease diagnosis and screening possible even hundreds of miles from a medical facility,” said Fletcher.