Investigator Grants focus on AI

CERA researchers have received a major funding boost for projects using artificial intelligence and powerful imaging technologies to prevent vision loss and gain greater insight into the ageing process.


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Dr Zhichao Wu and Dr Zhuoting Zhu have both been awarded Investigator Grants by the National Health and Medical Research Council in the latest round of funding announced by Health Minister Greg Hunt this week.

Fast-tracking macular research

The funding will enable Dr Wu to fast-track the discovery of new treatments for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in Australians over 50.

“The funding will help us speed up the pace of research to find new treatments for this devastating disease,’’ he says.

“Part of my research will involve using artificial intelligence to replicate what only experts can currently do well – pick up important new disease features in AMD from the rich, but complex, modern eye imaging data.

“Such automation will help us learn more about these new disease features in big cohorts, which will ultimately help us better understand the causes of AMD.’’

Eye scan to measure ageing

Dr Zhu’s Investigator Grant supports the further development of an easy, fast, safe and user-friendly screening program which aims to measure the biological ageing process through a simple eye scan.

“Premature ageing places tremendous pressure on healthcare system,” says Dr Zhu.

“There is great diversity in how people age. Some 70-year-olds enjoy good health, while others have  significant care needs.

“The eye can serve as a window to our health. An accurate measure of the ageing process will help us assess health risks and enable early and targeted interventions.

“Current tests which measure biological ageing – such as epigenetics and brain scans are invasive, expensive and inconvenient.”

Dr Zhu’s pilot data have shown that the gap between age predicted by the AI algorithm from eye scans and actual age is an accurate predictor for survival and heart attack.

“My research will further refine and translate this AI technology into the clinic and help to identify people at high risk of accelerated ageing and cardiovascular disease, ultimately improving health outcomes.’’

Excellence in AI

CERA Managing Director Professor Keith Martin congratulated Dr Wu and Dr Zhu on their grants.

“These grants are enormously competitive to secure and recognise the high calibre of Zhichao and Zhuoting as emerging researchers as well as the critical role AI will play in the future of eye care,’’ he says.

“Their work builds on CERA’s strong track record of AI research to tackle eye diseases including AMD, glaucoma, myopia and keratoconus.’’

Professor Martin says advances in technology, through AI, big data and powerful imaging techniques are transforming eye research.

“We can now see the eye in more precise detail than ever before, providing great potential to diagnose disease earlier and provide early treatment to prevent blindness,’’ he says.

“Increasingly our research is also recognising the eye as the window the body and the brain, with the potential to predict early risk of dementia and cardiovascular disease.’’

Professor Martin says the new technologies also have great potential to increase access to eye screening and improve eye care across the community.

“A strong focus of all of our research is not just on testing our research in the lab – but developing new technologies which can be used in real-life settings to benefit patients.’’

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