Published on: 17 May 2024

A partnership is set to use Artificial Intelligence to try to improve the treatment for one of the leading causes of blindness in the world, diabetic retinopathy, and a complication it causes called diabetic macular oedema (DMO).

South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle University and Roche Products Limited will all work together on the research.

In diabetic macular oedema (DMO), blood vessels leak fluid into the retina. It is the leading cause of blindness in adults and everyone who has type 1 or type 2 diabetes is at risk of DMO.

South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust runs Sunderland Eye Infirmary, the only specialist eye hospital in the region. It receives 600 referrals for patients with diabetic eye disease each year. 

Around 200 new patients a year are treated with injections into the eye or eyes, with the service carrying out around 2,500 injections in that time. Others are also treated using a laser and surgery.

To monitor the condition, images are taken using optical coherence tomography (OCT). 

This creates very detailed three-dimensional images of the retina. The hospital’s photography team, along with Roche and Newcastle researchers and data experts, will work to identify biomarkers - a biological marker - on the images, which help show at what stage the condition is at. 

The study also aims to identify how the disease changes, measure how the patient responds to treatment and how they may react in the future.

Sunderland Eye Infirmary Consultants Mr Maged Habib and Professor David Steel, also Professor of Retinal Surgery at Newcastle University, have been leading the eye hospital team involved in the NHS’s part of the programme.

Professor David Steel and Mr Maged Habib review an image of a patient's eye as part of their research work into DMO..jpg

Professor David Steel and Mr Maged Habib review an image of a patient's eye as part of their research work into DMO.

Professor Steel said:

"This is a fantastic opportunity for us to work with the university team and Roche. It will see us work together for our patients. 

"Diabetic eye disease, and in particular diabetic related macular oedema, is a common cause of reduced vision that we treat with injections into the eye. We hope that this research will ultimately improve our ability to predict and treat the patients affected by DMO with the best possible treatment regime and type of injection. 

"It will involve several departments in Sunderland Eye Infirmary, including our imaging team, data team and research staff. 

"We are all excited to be working on this innovative project and hope that it can help improve the outcomes for our patients and their eyesight in the near future."

The consultants have already been working alongside Professor Boguslaw Obara, Dean of Business, Innovation and Skills, Newcastle University's Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering at the university and his team for a number of years. This has focused on AI and image analysis to help better assess a series of blinding eye diseases.

Professor Obara said:

"This is a truly exciting project where Newcastle University's renowned data science and healthcare expertise merges with research and clinical teams from Roche and Sunderland Eye Infirmary. 

"Together, we aim to revolutionize eye disorder diagnosis and treatment using AI, marking a pivotal milestone in healthcare innovation."

Richard Erwin, General Manager, Roche Products Ltd, added:

"While there have been some advances in treatments, not all patients have the same prognosis. The rate their condition progresses and how they respond to treatment also differs. As it stands, there are limited ways to predict what will happen and how they will react to interventions. 

"The study aims to speed up what can be learned and improved on in this area. Partnerships such as this one are vital in helping us use the latest technology to advance our understanding of this condition - a leading cause of blindness, globally."

The data gathered will be anonymised, so no patients are identified, and all intellectual property will be owned by South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust and shared with the NHS through an open-source framework with the aim of accelerating learnings throughout the NHS.

Newcastle University will provide the academics and researchers to run the project.

Roche Products Limited will provide data science and advanced analytical expertise through Dr Rebecca Pope’s team, Roche UK’s Digital & Data Science Innovation Lead. 

More about the Trust’s research work can be found by clicking here