Technology normally used in the newest telescopes to find distant stars is now helping to diagnose the developed world’s most common form of sight loss in adults.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) leads to the loss of central vision when looking at something directly ahead, such as a television or book.
In the UK, the number of AMD sufferers is expected to rise to 750,000 by 2020.
Currently more than 1% of Britons aged over 60 suffer from some form of AMD.
Engineers at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), usually design and make instruments to detect faint light from distant stars and galaxies.
But now the specialist cameras, light technology and software have been adapted to create a unique “retinal densitometer”, which can pick up the earliest stages of AMD by measuring, in the minutest of detail, how the eye responds to light.
It is being tested on patients by scientists from Cardiff University’s School of Optometry and Vision Sciences.
Dr Tom Margrain, from Cardiff University, told Sky News there are overlaps in technology used in optometry and astronomy.
“Astronomers are often used to looking out into the space at very dim distant planets and galaxies and so on,” he said.
“We have the same challenges in the human eye – there is very little light coming back from the human eye so really there is a great overlap in the technological approaches that we need in both disciplines.”
Dr Dave Melotte, innovation manager at the UK ATC, said: “Astronomy technology and vision science might seem poles apart but put the right experts together and they are able to achieve things that would be impossible by either group in isolation.”
So far 20 patients have been involved in testing the new technology.
Until very recently there have been few treatment options available for AMD, but some treatments to delay or manage early signs of the disease are now being developed.
Early diagnosis is one of the most crucial factors for developing new treatments, but it is extremely hard to detect in the early stages and current tests are relatively crude.
The project has been welcomed by Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts.
“Space technology doesn’t just tell us more about the universe – it also has applications right here on Earth,” he said.
“This project is very promising for patients and shows that by working across disciplines scientists and engineers can develop innovative new solutions for a whole range of issues, including healthcare.”
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