By Peter Haapaniemi
As the saying goes, the eyes are windows to the soul. As it turns out, they’re also windows to a person’s health.
That’s the basic idea behind OcuSciences, an Ann Arbor, MI, based company set up to license and commercialize technology developed at the University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center. Launched in 2008, the company spent several years honing that technology into a product called OcuMet Beacon™ — a unique, patented device for capturing images from inside the eye in order to detect eye disease. With this technology, OcuSciences was named 2014 “Innovator of the Year” by Medical Main Street, the life sciences program run by Michigan’s Oakland County. That award is given to new medical technologies that “incorporate a game-changing innovation.”
“People are understanding that this kind of functional imaging is the next big thing in ophthalmology,” says Kurt Riegger, president and chief operating officer at OcuSciences. Today, the OcuMet Beacon is out of the lab and being used in a number of clinics, and it has the potential to put a powerful new tool into the hands of healthcare providers.
Targeting Early Detection
Examinations of the eye are critical to uncovering problems with the retina that can damage vision. What’s more, such examinations can help detect underlying diseases, such as diabetes, that can cause damage in the retina.
With the traditional approach, a physician examines the retina at the back of the eye, looking for tiny leaking blood vessels and swelling. This process can take time and it can be invasive, involving the injection of dyes to help make the small structures in the eye stand out.
A bigger drawback is that these retinal problems can’t be seen in the early stages. When a patient has an illness that can harm the eyes, such as diabetic retinopathy, “it takes a while for these [hemorrhages] to develop,” says Riegger. “Once the doctor can see them, you have had the disease for quite a while. Then you’re playing catch-up and just trying to tamp down the swelling and the hemorrhaging,” he says. “It’s much better to identify the disease earlier and get it under control, before those changes happen.”
That’s what the OcuMet Beacon device does. Instead of looking for damage in the eye, it looks at mitochondria — the energy-producing component of cells — to measure the health of the cells. This technique — known as Retinal Metabolic Analysis (RMA) — involves shining a blue light onto the retina, which makes poorly functioning mitochondria emit a green glow.
Computer software analyzes the image to help the doctor assess the illness. The mitochondria are a kind of “canary in the coal mine” that respond to a disease before there is visible damage, such as vessel leaking. That means that healthcare providers can detect problems much earlier.
With the OcuMet Beacon device, the RMA is relatively easy to perform. It is also non-invasive and fast — which is important for practical use. “This test needs to be very rapid, because clinicians only have a few minutes with you,” says Riegger. He explains that while other techniques can take 30 minutes, an assessment with RMA technology can be done in minutes — a process he likens to having a driver’s license photo taken.
Today, in addition to diabetic retinopathy, OcuSciences is focusing on using OcuMet Beacon for the early detection of glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration — eye diseases that can lead to diminished or complete loss of vision. But the ability to detect diabetes is an especially important opportunity. Diabetes is a stealthy disease that people can have for years before symptoms appear. According to OcuSciences, there are 8.1 million undiagnosed diabetics in the United States, and a key reason for that is the cumbersome nature of existing screening methods. More streamlined screening via RMA techniques could help improve those statistics.
“Many of us are walking around with diabetes and we don’t even know it,” says Riegger. “But we think RMA can detect diabetes five or 10 years before significant damage is happening in the eye. That makes it possible to put the patient on a proactive course of treatment and apply therapies earlier to preserve more vision.”
OcuSciences is now producing a research version of the OcuMet Beacon product, and the device is being put to work in clinics at three major medical centers in New York, Ann Arbor and San Francisco, with more centers to be added soon. “Having multiple instruments used in the field gives us more research into how this works with different eye diseases, and gives us background data for normal, healthy people,” says Riegger. This real-world data will help the medical community make more effective use of the devices.
A Broad Opportunity
Early detection of diabetes is just one possible use for RMA, says Riegger. Already, the OcuMet Beacon has been used by several major pharmaceutical companies to track the effectiveness of drugs during clinical trials. The technology could also be used to monitor progress when a person is being treated for eye diseases, enabling doctors to more closely adjust the patient’s treatment as it proceeds. Overall, this level of monitoring means that patients and doctors alike will know if a treatment is working in just a few months, as opposed to having to wait a year or more with traditional methods.
RMA could also help healthcare providers detect a broad range of diseases, Riegger says. That’s because the health of the mitochondria in the retina can be affected by problems in other parts of the body.
“If something is going on that is also damaging your liver, kidney, heart or brain, we may be able to see it earliest in the eye,” says Riegger.
Because it is fast, non-invasive and relatively easy to use, OcuSciences’ technology may eventually be a common sight. In time, Riegger says, “it could be in your optometrist’s or ophthalmologist’s office, so when you go get a pair of eyeglasses, you get this test to see how your retina is doing.”
He adds that the technology could be used in devices built by partner companies as well as in OcuSciences’ own devices, which would open the door to a range of possibilities.
RMA has been called a new vital sign that could be used by primary physicians, along with traditional measurements such as blood pressure and temperature. Riegger says that the technology could even be used in locations such as recreational facilities and health fairs, providing a widespread early screening tool that lets people know when they need to follow up with a doctor.
After working on RMA technology and the OcuMet Beacon product for several years, OcuSciences is ready for that future.
“We have an instrument now that’s quick, reliable, precise and geared to do what the clinicians need,” says Riegger. “So we’ve gone through that learning curve and have a product that’s ready to hit what I think is going to be a big market.”
Company: OcuSciences, Ann Arbor, MI, a spinout from the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center.
Technology: Retinal Metabolic Analysis (RMA), a fast, non-invasive technique for the early identification of retinal problems.
Product: OcuMet Beacon: analyzes retinal images to detect diabetes, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration; monitors effectiveness of treatments.
Potential markets: In use at several major medical centers; suitable for widespread use by ophthalmologists/optometrists and primary care physicians.