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Like photographing starlight.

That's how Kurt Riegger describes the new medical device his company has created to gauge eye health. The device shoots a blue light into the back of the eye and takes a picture, making the cells in the tissue glow green. The brighter the glow recorded, the more cell damage there is.

"The device is measuring patterns in the tissue of the eye, which can change when they are affected by disease," said Riegger, president and chief operating officer of Ann Arbor-based OcuSciences. "By detecting these diseases earlier, you can catch it and treat it before irreversible cell loss."

OcuSciences has been working on the eye imaging device, what they call the OcuMet Beacon, since 2008 when two University of Michigan doctors began adapting the technology from existing devices that measure heart tissue health. The difference is, where most people would be opened up on an operating table for the heart screening, the the OcuMet Beacon is a small, upright machine that can conduct the test in about two minutes without anything invasive being done to the patient.

The team believes the device could have far-reaching impact on the field of eye heath, most importantly for early detection of diabetes, which can show in the eye long before there are visible physical symptoms.

There are an estimated 25.8 million Americans with diabetes, about 8.3 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Diabetes Education Program. Of those, 7 million do not know they have the disease.

Last week, Oakland County announced OcuSciences was chosen as the "INNO-VATOR of the Year" for its Medical Main Street program, which promotes the health care industry across the state. The award honors the creators of a medical device which demonstrates the most dramatic change in the health care industry in Michigan.

"This has the ability to save people's lives," said Deputy Oakland County Executive Matthew Gibb. "(With that many) diabetics in the U.S. if you have a device like this which allows you to diagnose it beforehand, that's a game changer."

Advanced diagnostic tool

The OcuMet Beacon beat out five other Medical Main Street finalists. The award will be presented to the company at a ceremony Oct. 22 at the annual Medical Main Street convention.

The OcuMet Beacon was developed by University of Michigan ophthalmologist and pathologist Dr. Victor M. Elner, who serves as OcuSciences' chief medical officer and interim-CEO, and Dr. Howard Petty, a Professor of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences and Microbiology and Immunology at U-M. He serves as the company's chief technology officer.

The OcuMet Beacon works by shining a blue light into the mitochondria, or the powerhouse of a cell, in the retina at the back of the eye. If those mitochondria are damaged, they emit a brighter than normal green glow. Particularly for younger patients, if the test results show high numbers of damaged mitochondria, diabetes could be the likely culprit.

The Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has been using a research-grade version of the device for the last three years and in the last year, another model has been installed for use at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai in New York City, said Riegger. The OcuMet Beacon is not currently being sold, but once testing is complete and the Federal Drug Administration approves, they imagine a price point of around $30,000, comparable to the equipment that would be found in a typical eye doctor's office.

The team is billing the device as an advanced diagnostic tool, another measure of vital signs, much like a blood pressure cuff or thermometer could be used to indicate underlying problems. The technique is unique to this device and something new for the industry.

"Presumably, this device would be most useful in a primary care physician office to screen for retinal disease," said Dr. Thomas Aaberg, an ophthalmologist with Retina Specialists of Michigan in Grand Rapids. "This could be useful in individuals who do not require glasses and consequently presume their eyes are healthy."

Being examined is key

Optometrists and ophthalmologists could use it to monitor the progression of tissue damage, especially for a disease like age-related macular degeneration, which can cause blindness and is currently not curable. But Riegger says he ultimately envisions the device being available in drug stores, supermarkets or YMCAs, where people could use it and, upon getting the results, follow up with an eye doctor if something is abnormal.

In that way it could help get over the biggest hurdle to eye health: getting people to show up for an eye exam.

"At present the major barrier to diagnosing and treating serious retinal conditions is actually simply having people obtain an examination," said Dr. Abdhish Bhavsar, clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "Once a proper dilated retinal examination is obtained by an appropriately trained specialist like an ophthalmologist or retina specialist then taking intervention that would prevent permanent vision loss is usually the case."

There are some very important limitations with the device for now, which has left some doctors, including Aaberg and Bhavsar, unsure of whether it could revolutionize eye care.

"Specifically we can't tell you what is causing the damage," said Riegger. "All we can tell you is there is a damage process ongoing and how fast it is progressing."

The company is currently developing another model which, through computer analysis of the test results, will be able to narrow down the cause of the tissue damage, making it easier to diagnose diseases like diabetes.

"You can detect it when people are 15-18 years old, before it becomes damaging to them," said Riegger. "Then, once you've been diagnosed with diabetes, you need to follow up with regular visits to your ophthalmologist or optometrist and we want to be part of that follow up."

lrazzaq@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2127

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