Scientists use AI to improve diagnosis and monitoring of rare eye condition

Fight for Sight is funding research by scientists from universities and hospitals in Birmingham and London using artificial intelligence to extract ‘hidden’ information from retinal images of patients with a rare eye condition called birdshot uveitis. Their goal is to enable earlier diagnosis and more precise monitoring of changes in the eye linked with the condition – helping to protect patients from sight loss.

Scientists use AI to improve improve diagnosis and monitoring of rare eye condition
An illustration of the retinal imaging technique

The team are aiming to use the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to help extract information that may be ‘hidden away’ from human examiners. Their goal is to create an automated system that can detect and interpret subtle patterns in the data, providing accurate measures to improve diagnosis and monitoring of the disease.

Birdshot uveitis is a rare, sight-threatening eye condition caused by inflammation of the part of the eye that provides the retina with most of its blood supply. It is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s own immune system wrongly attacks its own tissues. Developing accurate new tests that can diagnose the condition earlier could enable people to receive treatment sooner, helping to prevent unnecessary sight loss.

Professor Alastair Denniston from the University of Birmingham said:

Currently, patients with birdshot uveitis are often diagnosed late, and even when diagnosed may not get the treatment they need. It is such a difficult condition to assess reliably so patients may be under-treated and risk losing sight, or over-treated and experience side effects. Our project aims to combine the use of modern imaging techniques with cutting-edge data analytics to develop a set of robust new measures that can help doctors diagnose the condition earlier and personalise treatment decisions.”

Joanne Hawkins (49), who was diagnosed with birdshot uveitis in 2013, welcomes this new research:

Treatment for birdshot uveitis can be really unpleasant, and it’s really hard to find one that is effective that doesn’t come with too many side effects. It can cause a lot of disruption to your life. I’ve had several kinds of medication for birdshot uveitis, including steroids, immune suppressants, and tablets to manage the side effects of the steroids. I’m still taking several of these medications on my new treatment plan, just in smaller doses.

Although I seem to be managing with my treatment, for my eye condition, all the medications and various hospital visits has a detrimental impact on my life. I welcome any research into improving diagnosis to potentially pave the way for a better treatment.”

Dr Neil Ebenezer, Director of Research, Policy and Innovation at Fight for Sight, says:

We are pleased to fund this valuable piece of research that we hope will improve diagnosis in cases of birdshot uveitis. If doctors can diagnose birdshot uveitis at an early stage, this will mean that a patient will receive treatments sooner when they are more likely to prevent sight loss. And if they have better tools that enable them to more accurately monitor changes in the eye linked with the condition, this will help tailor treatment for each patient – protecting them from sight loss while reducing the risk of side effects.”

While birdshot uveitis is treatable, patients may have mild symptoms when the condition is in its early stages – and so they may only be diagnosed after their retina is already damaged. Developing accurate new tests that can diagnose the condition earlier could enable people to receive treatment sooner, helping to prevent unnecessary sight loss.

People with birdshot uveitis are usually treated with drugs that can dampen inflammation in the eye. But unfortunately, these can lead to unwanted side effects. Currently, there is no ‘one size fits all’ treatment plan that can achieve the right balance between reducing retinal damage and limiting side effects. Doctors currently rely on a range of different tests to help guide their treatment decisions. However, these are unpopular with patients as they are invasive – and it’s challenging to piece the results together to gain an accurate picture of what’s going on at the back of the eye.

Developing simple, effective new tests that can more accurately monitor critical changes in the retina could hugely benefit both doctors and patients. Such tools could also help to speed up the process of testing the effectiveness of potential new treatments in clinical trials.

An important part of this project will involve creating a new birdshot image-bank linked to the UK Birdshot Registry and Biobank, which will be essential for this research as well as accelerating future research into this rare condition.

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