Eyes on the sky

What do star-gazing and big data have to do with blinding eye disease?


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Scientists at the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) are teaming up with astrophysicists from Swinburne University of Technology to better understand the mathematics behind diagnosing eye diseases.

The team, led by ophthalmologist Dr Peter van Wijngaarden (CERA) and astrophysicist Associate Professor Christopher Fluke (Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University and OzGrav), will be working together to apply the same big data analysis used by astronomers in their study of the universe, to the field of ophthalmology.

In particular, Dr van Wijngaarden and his CERA colleague Dr Xavier Hadoux want to use these principles to improve their understanding of the data generated with a new type of spectral imaging camera, which provides unique insights into diseases of the eye and brain, including Alzheimer’s disease.

“We hope to learn from the Swinburne team how to ‘crunch the numbers’ more effectively, so we can generate clinically relevant information to allow faster and earlier diagnosis of  eye diseases,” said Dr Hadoux.

“Astronomy is a great training ground for tackling big data challenges”, said Swinburne astronomer Dr Edward Taylor, who is also involved in the project. The hyperspectral camera works on a very similar principle to instruments that astronomers use to study how distant galaxies work. “We are excited by the opportunities to work with CERA on transferring our approaches to a new discipline, and we expect to learn new ways of studying our data in return.”

The collaboration will be formalised thanks to a generous donation from Australian entrepreneur Dr Steven Frisken, CEO of ophthalmic tech company Cylite, who was one of four people jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation last night in Canberra.

Dr Frisken and his colleague Dr Simon Poole received the Prize for their work to transform optical telecommunication networks by developing the optical switching technologies which are needed for efficiently connecting the global internet.

“It is truly inspiring to me that the spectrum of light — whose different colours are central to inter-connecting us all through a web of optical fibres across the globe — also brings information to us about farthest galaxies or reveals hidden terrestrial information through satellite imagery. These same photons and colours can also be used to probe the tiniest structures of the eye. I’m thrilled to be helping to enable this this multi-disciplinary research, which leverages discoveries and world-best expertise from these apparently disparate fields. The outcomes could be revolutionary in providing a window to non-invasive screening and support of therapies for many diseases of our ageing population.”

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