A low–cost camera which takes pictures inside the human eye is being developed with the support of The Fred Hollows Foundation.
The pictures can be examined by trained eye health workers to allow early diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases which would otherwise lead to blindness.
"Eye health workers around the world often need to make long, difficult journeys to examine people living in remote areas," says The Foundation's CEO Brian Doolan.
"Their medical equipment is often heavy and fragile which makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to transport. Tragically, this means some people miss out on early detection of eye diseases which can be treated well before they cause blindness.
"This new lightweight camera has the potential to make a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and halt their blindness before it is too late."
The device, known as a non-mydriatic fundus camera, allows health workers to photograph the eye's interior. An essential eye screening tool, the camera is used to diagnose blindness-causing eye conditions like diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.
It can also be used to measure refractive error (the need for glasses). A first-of-its-kind, the camera is cheaper, lighter and tougher than anything on the market - allowing the delivery of affordable eye examinations to people in some of the most remote regions of the world.
The new model relies on infrared autofocusing and LED illumination, so there is no chance of broken light bulbs - a common problem when transporting existing equipment. The quality of images is also higher than most other fundus cameras. Adding to its appeal for doctors in remote regions, the device only weighs around nine kilograms, making it extremely portable. Finally, it is estimated to cost around one-sixth the price of others on the market.
"At this stage we are just trialling the camera, but we are excited to be pushing boundaries in this area, because that was the type of thing Fred believed in," Doolan says.
"If he saw a problem he tried to work out a way to overcome it. To do things smarter and more effectively to benefit those who have the greatest need."
Social enterprise Quantum Catch is developing the fundus camera with support from The Foundation.
Field trials will take place in Fiji and Pakistan later this year and clinical trials have already started at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
The project is in the spirit of Professor Fred Hollows, who was always looking for innovative and affordable ways to deliver eye health in developing countries.
In the 1990s, the high cost of the intraocular lenses (IOLs) inserted into the eye during cataract surgery put treatment well beyond the reach of people in developing countries like Nepal, Vietnam and Eritrea. Fred set to work to design an affordable lens factory. Sadly, he died before the first lenses were produced. But The Foundation carried on his dream.
In 1994, the Fred Hollows IOL factory opened in Asmara, Eritrea. Together with another in Nepal, the Fred Hollows IOL factories
have now produced more than four million of the tiny sight-saving lenses.