For almost twenty years, Dr. David Hunter, Chief of Ophthalmology at Children’s Hospital Boston and Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, has been working to better detect medical conditions that lead to a loss of vision in children. Recently, all this work has led to the development of what he calls the Pediatric Vision Scanner, a device produced by RebiScan that detects amblyopia (lazy-eye) and strabismus (misaligned eyes).
This week, we sat down with Dr. Hunter to talk about the scanner and its future.
Q: Tell us about the Pediatric Vision Scanner. How long did it take to develop?
At first, we didn’t know we were developing a screener for vision. We were focused on the fact that if you scan the eye with polarized light, you can manipulate the light in certain ways. We realized because of the structure of the eye, if you develop a scan, you can figure out if an eye is looking at a target or not.
In my day job as a pediatric ophthalmologist, I see kids who have misaligned eyes or reduced vision in one eye, but they come to us at an age where if we had seen them earlier, we would have had better outcomes. With this new technology, we had a method of figuring out where the eye was looking so we could tell if kids had problems with eye alignment.
We also knew that someday this scanner would need to be a handheld device, so we worked on miniaturizing it and finally got that working after a few tries. On our third try, we had a machine that definitely worked. So we started working on the clinical trial at Boston Children’s, studying a couple hundred kids. The machine is now about 99% accurate at figuring out which kids have a problem and which kids don’t. After we knew that, I decided it was time to start a company to get the invention out into the world. It’s been a while – the idea was rooted in 1991 and RebiScan, my company, wasn’t founded until 2010.
Q: What was your inspiration for developing the scanner?
The inspiration continues to be that kids are losing vision because they don’t have access to adequate technology. If we can change that, then we can eliminate the number one cause of vision loss in kids, which is called amblyopia but is more commonly known as the lazy eye. Between amblyopia and misaligned eyes (strabismus), those two combined conditions affect five percent of kids. We need to put technology in the hands of pediatricians to get the earliest detection. If we can do that, we can eliminate this and save hundreds of thousands of kids from preventable vision loss.
Q: What kinds of conditions can the scanner detect and what are the implications for that detection?
The scanner can detect both lazy eyes or misaligned eyes. Sometimes it’s obvious when certain children have eye problems, but in a lot of kids it’s not so obvious, to pediatricians or to parents. With lazy eye, the eyes might appear to be straight but one eye is not being paid attention to by the brain and so the vision does not develop. The scanner will detect any medical condition that affects the alignment or structure of the eye.
Q: What are the future implications of the scanner?
If every child gets a test with this scanner starting at age two annually for the first five or six years of life, we will eliminate the number one cause of vision loss in kids. This is a huge benefit to society and will save insurance companies money because there will not be a disease burden to carry. I foresee a day when we have taken this and eradicated this silent thief of sight. In fact, my own son had a problem and I had him in glasses by age one. Now he has perfect vision in both eyes. I know that he would have been one of these kids if he had not had access to my expertise. I want to put that expertise in every pediatrician’s hands so we can get these kids in early!
Soniya Shah is an on-staff contributing writer at MedTech Boston. She's a senior at Carnegie Mellon University pursuing a BS in technical writing. She has experience as a ghost writer and medical writer, and in developing software documentation.
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