Medical Device Monday: Artificial Intelligence to Detect Vision Loss in Diabetic Adults

Today’s science and technology is truly beginning to look like a SciFi movie: robots and medical devices with artificial intelligence performing tests and tasks to help make new discoveries and form conclusions that we might not be able to. We— as humans— can only do so much, but with the help of new, smarter medical devices, we can make more discoveries, improve diagnoses, and enhance a patient's quality of life. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a technology that uses algorithms and software to interpret complex data without human help, and is something that has definitely been on the medical horizon for a while. Thanks to the Breakthrough Devices Pathway (defined in a Wednesday Wisdom earlier this month), a new medical device has just been granted by the FDA that will help millions of patients.

IDx-DR is a device recently granted via the de novo pathway, and is geared towards adults with diabetes who run the risk of vision loss. There are more than 30 million adults living with diabetes in the US today, and one of the risks that comes with diabetes is vision loss, or diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of vision loss among adults with diabetes, and occurs when high blood sugar levels lead to swelling and leakage of blood vessels in the retina. There are two stages of diabetic retinopathy: the initial stage is called the Non-Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (NPDR) and the advanced stage is called the Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (PDR) which can lead to blindness. In NPDR, the tiny blood vessels weaken and can leak blood and fluid into the retina. Sometimes the blood vessels close and blood cannot reach the macula; these events lead to a blurry vision. In PDR, damaged vessels eventually close off leading to the growth of new, abnormal blood vessels in the retina. These new blood vessels can also be leaky...leading to an imbalance of the normal flow of fluid out of the eye...leading to pressure build up and eventual optic nerve damage. Additionally, the scar tissue stimulated by the growth of new blood vessels may lead to retinal detachment. IDx-DR is the first medical device to use artificial intelligence to detect higher levels of retinopathy in diabetic adults, and is a medical device developed to discover and detect these indicators to prevent vision loss.

Early detection of diabetic retinopathy is very critical in preventing vision loss, and this new medical device is one that works to make early detection more common, ultimately cutting down the percentage of diabetic adults that lose vision from diabetic retinopathy. The current mode of diagnosis involves a visit to the ophthalmologist who will either do a fluorescein angiography— where a yellow dye is injected to see what is happening with the retina— or an Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) to measure the thickness of the retina.

Compared to these modes of diagnosis, IDx-DR promises to provide an immediate, reliable assessment for diabetic retinopathy which can be used even at a primary care physician’s office. One of the great things about it is you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to use it! It is designed to be user-friendly, and can be administered by trained novice operators who have no prior experience with ocular imaging.

Don’t believe me? Let’s figure out how this thing actually works...

Using a Topcon NW400 camera, the operator captures images of the retina. The retinal images are then uploaded onto a computer where the IDx-DR software is installed. The IDx-DR software then analyzes retinal images using algorithm to detect signs of retinopathy.  In less than a minute, the operator will receive a results report with one of the three outputs:

a.       Exam quality is insufficient if the images are of low quality

b.      Negative for more than mild diabetic retinopathy. Retest in 12 months.

c.       More than mild diabetic retinopathy detected. Refer to an eye care professional.

In a 2017 clinical study, IDx-DR was tested on 900 diabetic patients across 10 sites in the US. IDx-DR was successful in detecting mild diabetic retinopathy with 87% sensitivity and 90% specificity. That’s pretty awesome! Unfortunately, IDx-DR cannot be used on patients who already have vision loss, blurred vision, or floaters. It is also contraindicated in patients diagnosed with other eye issues, like macular edema, severe non-proliferative retinopathy, proliferative retinopathy, radiation retinopathy, or retinal vein occlusion. Finally, IDx-DR can be used to only detect diabetic retinopathy and not any other ophthalmic diseases.

With an estimated 24,000 people who go blind from diabetic retinopathy each year due to lack of screening, IDx-DR promises to be a novel device in managing diabetic retinopathy. The benefit of this device far outweighs the risk and we're excited to see it come to market!  

 Image from https://www.retinamd.com/

Image from https://www.retinamd.com/