CavCam Diagnoses Eye Damage

Aug 8, 2013

Diabetes is a dangerous disease that can lead to blindness, but some people don’t know they have it, and others refuse to make changes needed to prevent complications.   

Now, an eye doctor at the University of Virginia has come up with a relatively cheap and easy way to diagnose eye damage and to motivate patients.

For more than a decade, Dr. Paul Yates has been searching for a camera that could help him examine the backs of patients’ eyes.  The quest began during his years as a resident at Harvard.

“I was sitting alone in an emergency room up in Boston late at night, and I was three months into my residency and supposed to know how to be an ophthalmologist, and I realized that rather than calling my senior resident who would be none to happy for being woken up in the middle of the night, that if I had the ability to be able to take photographs that would be of some use to me as well as possibly to other people as well.”

And over time the need grew, with more and more people suffering eye damage due to diabetes:

"We’re looking at 26 million patients in the U.S. that have diabetes.  Forty percent will go at some point on to develop some degree of retinopathy. I mean it’s become epidemic.  Half the patients that I see in my clinic as a retina doctor have some complications associated with diabetes.”

By screening all diabetic patients, he knew more cases of eye damage could be caught and treated.
But taking pictures inside the eye is a complicated business.  Some companies found ways to do it using large, heavy pieces of equipment, but many medical practices could not afford the technology, so Yates began looking at consumer cameras – cheap digital models that might be modified to photograph the back of the eye.

With university funds earmarked to translate basic research into marketable medicine, Yates and engineering student Ken Tran developed a prototype.

Now, working with Aravan Hospital in India, he’s moving  forward to manufacture and distribute relatively small, cheap cameras to medical practices around the world. Already, Yates makes the images part of an exam – showing patients what healthy eye looks like and how diabetes causes bleeding and exudates – fluid leaking from damaged blood vessels.

For many patients, seeing is believing.

The image can then be sent to experts at medical centers like UVA.  Yates calls it the Cav Cam, and the university plans to equip clinics statewide.

Long-term, he hopes the camera will be integrated into routine medical exams. And even before the new camera goes on the market, Yates is working on one that can be used to diagnose retinopathy in premature babies.