Scientists Create App That Can See Cancer in the Eyes of Kids

A scientist whose son lost an eye to cancer has helped develop an app that can detect diseases by looking at photos of children.

Bryan F. Shaw, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Baylor University, and colleagues hope the app will save children from going blind. The makers dedicated the study to a child who died during research.

The White Eye detector can spot what is known as leukocoria. This is where an abnormal white reflection is seen from the retina of the eye. It is characteristic of a range of eye conditions including retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer that usually affects children under the age of five, as well as Coats' disease, cataract, amblyopia and hyperopia.

Doctors look for leukocoria in children's check-ups, but it can also be spotted in photographs. When light reflects on the retinal blood vessels and vascular layer of the eye, the pupils glow red. But in those with the previously mentioned conditions, the pupil can appear white or a yellowy-orange color.

The White Eye Detector app was tested on 52,982 photos of children donated by parents for the study published in the journal Science Advances. Of the total participants, 20 children had been diagnosed with eye disorders, while 20 were healthy and acted as a control.

The app detected white eye in 30 percent of photos where it was present. In 80 percent of cases, the app was able to identify the abnormal eye color in photos 1.3 years before the child was diagnosed, on average. It reported white eye when it wasn't there less than 1 percent of the time. The researchers hope to improve these figures in the next version of the app, which is available free for the public to download.

To protect parents' privacy, the app doesn't require an image to be uploaded to a distal server.

Bryan F. Shaw, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Baylor University, told Newsweek: "The app can most certainly help children from going blind. In the case of retinoblastoma, early diagnosis is the key to preserving vision, and life."

"A parent, and their camera, are the first line of defense in screening and preventing these deaths," he said. "Every parent should have an app for leukocoria detection. So mom and dad, take lots of pictures, and if there is a problem, this app will probably catch it."

Shaw was surprised at the low levels of leukocoria that the app could detect, including "the faintest 'gray' pupil, that would be hard for me to detect looking at the picture with the naked eye."

The white eye detector app could also pick up white eye in pictures with a wide field of view, where the child's pupil is difficult to even see using the naked eye, he said.

The researcher was inspired to create the app after his son Noah was diagnosed with retinoblastoma in his both eyes at 4 months old.

"Unfortunately, we caught it too late. His right eye was removed and his left eye was salvaged with proton beam radiation. It turned out, the signs of his cancer were always present," Shaw said.

"Looking back, we found leukocoria showing up in pictures taken when he was only 12 days old. So we set out to build an app that could search a parent's pictures for 'white eye. This study is the first real-world test of this app."

Shaw went on: "For me, studying pediatric eye disorders, like retinal cancer, is challenging because my 11-year-old child is still dealing with the life-long effects of bilateral retinoblastoma.

"Examining family photographs of children with eye cancer can be heartbreaking. You see the innocent, beautiful child and their loved ones, maybe a first birthday or being held by grandma or learning to eat. Everyone is happy. But you see the strange-looking pupil in the child or infant, and know it is caused by an aggressive cancer that no one in the photograph knows about.

"I've been in those pictures, I've taken those pictures, I've mourned over those pictures, after the late diagnosis. During the course of this study, we lost one child in the cohort; we dedicated the paper to him."

Shaw invited the parents of children with eye disorders to donate images to the app so they can help to improve it. Images can be sent to:

Lisa Christian, an associate clinical professor at the University of Waterloo, School of Optometry and Vision Science who did not work on the research, told Newsweek she was surprised by how easy the app was to use.

However, she said may also provide parents with a false reliance their child may not have leukocoria, due to possible false negatives.

"The paper states that parents should take their child to an ophthalmologist if leukocoria is detected through the app. I would like to remind readers that optometrists provide comprehensive eye care to children starting at six months of age, and parents can also choose to take their child to an optometrist to confirm the leukocoria diagnosis," she said.

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Scientists have created an app which can detect eye diseases including cancer. A stock image shows a mother taking a photo of her baby. Getty