McKelvey School of Engineering School of Medicine

WashU awarded up to $20M to create portable device to scan for eye diseases

(Clockwise, from left) Chao Zhou, Aravind Nagalu, Lan Yang, all from McKelvey School of Engineering; Shu-Wei Huang, from the University of Colorado Boulder; Rithwick Rajagopal, MD, PhD, and Margaret Reynolds, MD, both from Washington University School of Medicine. (Photo: McKelvey School News)

In the United States, more than one-fourth of adults over age 40 have an eye disease, including glaucoma, cataracts or age-related macular degeneration, or a chronic health condition that affects the eyes, such as diabetic retinopathy. These conditions are a strain on an individual’s health as well as on the health-care system, yet early diagnosis and management can help to prevent more than 90% of severe vision loss.

Chao Zhou, PhD, a professor of biomedical engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, has been working to improve optical coherence tomography (OCT) systems that can conduct high-resolution imaging of the eyes. Now, with an up to $20 million contract from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), he plans to create a portable OCT system based on photonic integrated circuits (PIC) and custom-designed electronic integrated circuits that could offer advanced eye screening to many more patients and at a lower cost. The technology also could be used in other applications, such as cardiology, dermatology, dentistry, endoscopy and urology.

The contract is part of ARPA-H’s first call for proposals for unconventional approaches to improving health outcomes across patient populations, communities, diseases and health conditions through breakthrough research and technological advancements. It is the first ARPA-H contract awarded to Washington University.

Traditional OCT systems are expensive, complex, bulky and labor-intensive to assemble and calibrate. The proposed system would weigh a few pounds, take high-resolution 3D scans of the retina in less than a second and be a fraction of the cost of the traditional systems. 

“The integration of photonic and electronic integrated circuits simplifies the assembly process and lowers production costs, making OCT more accessible to a wider range of health-care facilities and patients,” Zhou said. “Integrating components on a photonic chip also enhances overall stability and robustness, making these systems less susceptible to environmental influences and wear and tear, ensuring a longer lifespan and lower maintenance costs.”

Zhou’s group invented the space-division multiplexing optical coherence tomography (SDM-OCT), a technique that takes multiple high-definition OCT images simultaneously with a single detector and is at least 10 times faster than existing OCT scanners, which creates fewer opportunities for errors from patient movement. However, these systems required extensive time and labor to assemble components for each channel, which limited their broad use.

With the ARPA-H funding, Zhou and collaborators will assemble the components in a photonic chip using advancements in complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) processes used in the semiconductor industry. This will streamline manufacturing and lower costs. Once functioning, they will conduct studies using the device on adult and pediatric patients.

Developing a fully integrated photonic-integrated chip (PIC)-OCT system is very impactful yet also very challenging, the researchers said, so the team has divided its work into eight parts, ranging from developing components to testing. At the end of the five-year project, the team expects to have developed photonic and electronic chips and portable PIC-OCT prototypes specifically for ophthalmic imaging.

The proposed system is more than 50 times faster than existing state-of-the-art commercial OCT systems at a fraction of the cost, the researchers said. By optimizing and integrating the photonic and electronic circuits, the researchers can create an integrated image acquisition and signal processing engine with benefits that extend into other areas of health care, such as glucose sensing and portable skin imagers.

Collaborating with Zhou are:

  • Shu-Wei Huang, PhD, an assistant professor of electrical, computer and energy engineering and of biomedical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder;
  • Aravind Nagulu, PhD, an assistant professor of electrical and systems engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering;
  • Rithwick Rajagopal, MD, PhD, an associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Washington University School of Medicine;
  • Margaret Reynolds, MD, an assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Washington University School of Medicine; and
  • Lan Yang, PhD, the Edwin H. & Florence G. Skinner Professor of electrical and systems engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering.

Read more.