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Aussie eye doctors look to the stars to cure eye disease

30/10/2018By Myles Hume
Scientists at the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) are turning to astrophysicists to solve a mathematical dilemma in diagnosing eye disease.

For the past six months CERA’s unlikely alliance with the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University and OzGrav has been applying the same big data analysis used in studying the universe to the field of ophthalmology.

Now, the relationship has been galvanised thanks to a donation from Australian entrepreneur Dr Steven Frisken, which will fund a PhD student scholarship to continue with the research for three years.

CERA interim managing director and principal investigator Dr Peter van Wijngaarden and colleague Dr Xavier Hadoux aim to use these mathematic principles to improve their understanding of the data generated with a new type of spectral imaging camera. The camera provides unique insights into diseases of the eye and brain, including Alzheimer’s disease.

“There’s a lot of noise and a very weak signal, so I guess [studying eye data] akin to detecting a signal from a distant galaxy in the noise of all the nearby galaxies.”
CERA interim managing director Peter van Wijngaarden.

“The new imaging technology generates about a gigabyte of data per image, and within that gigabyte there’s a lot of noise and a very weak signal, so I guess it’s akin to detecting a signal from a distant galaxy in the noise of all the nearby galaxies,” van Wijngaarden said.

“There’s a lot around algorithm development, and some of the mathematics around data processing. Then there’s a complicational element too – they have some of the most capable supercomputers in the country.”

Both sides believe they may gain valuable insight from one another.

Hadoux said it was important they learned to “crunch the numbers” more effectively to allow faster and earlier diagnosis of eye disease. The hyperspectral camera works on a similar principle to instruments astronomers use to study how distant galaxies work.

Swinburne astronomer Dr Edward Taylor, who is also involved in the project, said astronomy was a great training ground for tackling big data challenges.

“We are excited by the opportunities to work with CERA on transferring our approaches to a new discipline, and we expect to learn new ways of studying our data in return,” Taylor said.

CERA is recruiting a PhD student to take the research further, and van Wijngaarden said ideal candidates would vary from students with an astrophysics background wanting to apply it to biology, to biomedical engineering/biomedicine students fascinated with astrophysics, or someone with strong mathematics who wanted to apply it to a biological setting.

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Frisken, who gave the donation, is the CEO of ophthalmic tech company Cylite and is a prolific inventor with 33 granted US patents in optics.

He was one of four people jointly awarded the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Canberra recently for their work in optical telecommunication networks.

IMAGE CAPTION: Centre for Eye Research Australia Swinburne astronomer Dr Edward Taylor, CERA’s Dr Xavier Hadoux and Swinburne Associate Professor Chris Fluke are helping one another crunch the numbers in their respective fields.

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