A visit to the ophthalmology clinic or to the opticians’ is an unheard-of luxury for tens of millions of people in rural regions around the world whose sight may be impaired.
In Brazil alone, four million people have serious visual impairment, and 1.23 million are blind. 23% of the population will never get to visit an eye clinic. Yet a significant proportion of those same people – or the health workers who visit them – possess mobile smartphones, devices which have the potential to solve their problems by providing quick, cheap and above all, in situ eye examinations of the fundus oculi or back of the eyeball.
Telemedicine has already made huge strides in this area, with a number of innovative companies around the world seeking to find alternatives to the expensive desktop fundus camera used by ophthalmologists to take pictures behind the retina. Digital retinal cameras linked to smartphones and making use of the handset’s own LED light source and sometimes its on-board camera too, are already bringing down prices to around US $300 in some markets.
Now Phelcom Technologies, a startup business focusing on the Brazilian market, hopes to launch its first product in 2018, once it wins approval from ANVISA, the domestic medical regulator. You can read a description of the company’s aims by clicking here.
The business, which completed its early proof of concept tests in 2015 and was registered as a company only in 2016, benefitted from a PIPE research grant to develop its SRC product. The company received R$225,000 (US$72,000) and a further US$29,300. The company recently won an award from tech foment agency Falling Walls Foundation.
Nevertheless, Phelcom’s digital retinal camera is hardly the stuff of the future: it looks much like Peek, a system developed by a team at the International Centre for Eye Health (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine). Already Peek partners with the USAID and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust to offer services to ministries of health and education especially in Africa, and to NGOs.
Nevertheless, the Brazilian startup could have a clear run in Latin America for basic testing. It’s proposing a new optical architecture for retina illumination and imaging and a new methodology to capture, storage and present the images of the eye in order to facilitate the equipment operation, as well as the means to process and transmit the diagnosis and medical report. All delivered online through a regular smartphone backed by special software.
“Ophthalmologists with limited investment capabilities or with little physical space in their clinics may have easier access to this kind of equipment, increasing the number of professionals working in the area,” says the company. “This technology tends to greatly increase the habit of these professionals to record images from the retina of their patients, generating benefits for all.
Phelcom, a startup based in São Carlos and launched by three alumni from the University of São Paulo, including computing experts José Augusto Stuchi and Diego Lencione. It has designed a cheap and simple electronic adjunct to a regular smartphone (IoS or Android) that can capture images of the inner eye for early detection of eye disease.
This Smart Retinal Camera (SRC) can undertake the three basic examinations regularly undertaken by ophthalmologists. With the help of injectable contrast medium or dye injected into the bloodstream, practitioners can also undertake a fluorescein angiography. This highlights the blood vessels in the back of the eye so they can be photographed. This test is commonly deployed to manage eye disorders.
However Phelcom is not the only startup specializing in optical measurement that’s a beneficiary of PIPE grants. Another Brazilian company, EyeNetra, has developed a kit that uses the smartphone to conduct regular eye tests to discover if a patient needs eyeglasses. The device, developed by Boston-based trio of Brazilian Vitor Pamplona, Ramesh Raskar and former MIT professor David Schafran. EyeNetra has already begin selling its product in a number of countries.
You can read a detailed article on this topic by Brazilian journalist Evanildo de Silveira by clicking here.