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    Google DeepMind searches for signs of retinopathy

    Google is using its DeepMind computing system to search for early signs of diabetic retinopathy and neovascular age-related macular degeneration (nAMD), the company announced this month.

    The company will analyse a database of a million fundus and optical coherence tomography (OCT) images supplied by the UK’s Moorfields Eye Hospital National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust to search for patterns that correlate to the diseases.

    “Our research with DeepMind has the potential to revolutionise the way professionals carry out eye tests and could lead to earlier detection and treatment of common eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration,” said Sir Peng Tee Khaw, of the trust, in the July 5 announcement.

    Jeffrey de Fauw of Google, along with researchers from Moorfields and other London institutions have simultaneously published details of their protocol in F1000 Research.

    Eye scans are complex and required trained professionals a long time to complete, according to the announcement on DeepMind’s website. “As a result, there are often significant delays in how quickly patients can be seen to discuss their diagnosis and treatment.” Classic computers have not been able to solve this problem.

    The researchers hope they can speed up the task by harnessing recent advances in machine learning, a process by which algorithms are able to learn how to accomplish tasks without instruction.

    Already such algorithms have provided insight into genetic interactions in autism and monitoring of physiological observations in intensive care, the researchers say.

    The researchers point out that AMD is the leading cause of blindness in Europe and North America and is responsible for more than half of the partially sighted or legally blind certifications in the United Kingdom. Early detection and treatment can make a significant difference in the course of the disease.

    Similarly diabetic retinopathy, they write, is the leading cause of blindness in working-age people throughout the developed world. According to one estimate, 50% of people with proliferative diabetic retinopathy will become legally blind within 5 years if they do not receive timely treatment, the researchers write. And 98% of severe visual loss from the disease can be prevented if the disease is caught early. 

    Related: Researchers: No need to screen nonagenarians for diabetic retinopathy

    DeepMind began as an independent project started by Demis Hassabis, Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman in London in 2010 to use neural networks, machine learning and other techniques in pursuit of artificial intelligence.

    Google acquired the fledgling enterprise in 2014 for a reported $500 million. Soon afterward it caught worldwide headlines by defeating champion player Lee Sedol at the game of Go.

    A similar project in which Google DeepMind announced it would crunch data on patients from the Royal Free Hospital London to help detect kidney disease stimulated controversy. Critics worried that Google would acquire sensitive information about these patients such as HIV status.

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