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How artificial intelligence as good as doctors could save patients with eye disease

Scientists have developed an AI system that can accurately detect signs of eye disease from scans. Credit: PA

An artificially intelligent (AI) programme "trained" from NHS patients data can spot key signs of eye disease just as well as the world’s top experts, a study has shown.

It has already detected data from 15,000 patients and learnt how to spot 10 key features of eye disease from complex retinal scans.

With more than two million people in the UK living with some form of sight loss and 285 million people worldwide also suffering, it is another reason for this to be brought in.

The system has the potential to prevent irreversible sight loss by ensuring patients with the most serious eye conditions receive early treatment.

How can AI work to spot signs of eye disease?

Dr Pearse Keane analyses an OCT retinal scan. Credit: PA

An optical coherence tomography (OCT) scan uses light rather than X-rays or ultrasound to generate 3D images of the back of the eye, revealing abnormalities that may be signs of disease.

The new system was developed by scientists at Moorfields, University College London, and Google’s UK-based DeepMind AI research centre.

Doctors have said in many cases blindness and treatment of eye diseases can be prevented by early detection and treatment of eye diseases.

Has AI been tested properly?

A patient undergoes an OCT retinal scan. Credit: PA

Findings published in Nature Medicine showed it was able to triage patients with more than 50 eye conditions correctly in more than 94% of cases, matching the performance of leading experts from around the world.

The programme does not make a definitive diagnosis of its own. But on the basis of clinical signs such as holes in the macular, the central region of the retina, or blocked retinal veins, it can recommend which patients should be seen urgently by a specialist or placed under observation.

Could this affect you?

1 in 30
People are living with sight loss.
250
Everyday 250 people start to lose their sight in the UK

What have leading doctors said?

Dr Pearse Keane, from Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Trust in London, said: "The number of eye scans we’re performing is growing at a pace much faster than human experts are able to interpret them.

"There is a risk that this may cause delays in the diagnosis and treatment of sight-threatening diseases, which can be devastating for patients.

"The AI technology we’re developing is designed to prioritise patients who need to be seen and treated urgently by a doctor or eye care professional.

"If we can diagnose and treat eye conditions early, it gives us the best chance of saving people’s sight."

Will AI scanning be made available everywhere?

Under a five-year development programme the scientists continue to press ahead with clinical trials.

Researchers believe it could be rolled out across 30 UK hospitals in less than three years.

Derek Hill, Professor of Medical Imaging Science at University College Hospital, said: "These papers provide further evidence that artificial intelligence will soon be routinely supporting doctors in streamlining diagnosis and treatment of numerous illnesses."