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Mother taking selfie with infant daughter

This App Can Spot Eye Conditions in Kids Where Early Detection is Key

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When combined with regular eye exams, it can be a powerful tool for parents 

More than 1 million children in the U.S. aged 0 to 17 years old suffer from blindness or have vision problems, according to a recent report from the National Center for Children’s Vision and Eye Health. Unfortunately, parents rarely schedule routine exams to check the health of their children’s eyes. They may rely on school vision screenings or be unaware that many issues affecting vision have few to no symptoms. 

That was the case for Sarah Lessman, whose 6-year-old son, Landon, has Coats disease, a blood vessel disorder that left him with limited vision in one eye. Lessman told CBS News the warning signs of the disorder were hard to spot. “Landon was a little delayed in all of his gross motor and fine motor development. He had a really hard time going down and up stairs.”

The CRADLE app scans photos on a smartphone for leukocoria, white eye glare that can be a symptom of Coats disease, cataracts or the eye cancer retinoblastoma.

Lessman noticed a white glare in her son’s left eye in photos. She did some research and found CRADLE (ComputeR-Assisted Detector of LEukocoria), an app that scans photos on your phone for white eye glare, which can be a symptom of Coats disease, cataracts or the eye cancer retinoblastoma.

Ophthalmologist Davinder Grover, M.D., confirmed that Landon had Coats disease. He explained that warning signs in children are easily missed in part because kids “can function extremely well with tremendous vision loss so they can easily trick people, [even] doctors.”

Created by a parent of a baby with retinoblastoma

Parents are often the first to notice symptoms of vision problems in their children. So it makes sense that the CRADLE app was created by a father. Bryan Shaw, a biochemist at Baylor University in Texas, got the idea when his oldest son was diagnosed with retinoblastoma at 4 months old.

“To make the diagnosis, the doctors shined a light into Noah’s eye and got a pale reflection from the back of the eyeball, an indication that there were tumors there,” reported NPR. Shaw wondered if that same pale reflection would show up in flash photos. Sure enough, pictures of his baby son showed the telltale “white eye,” known to doctors as leukocoria.

 “If I would have had some software telling me ‘Hey, go get this checked out,’ that would have sped up my son’s diagnosis” and potentially saved his eye, said CRADLE creator Bryan Shaw.

By the time Noah’s eye cancer was diagnosed, it was too late to save his right eye. “If I would have had some software telling me ‘Hey, go get this checked out,’ that would have sped up my son’s diagnosis and the tumors would have been just a little bit smaller when we got to them,” said Shaw. 

Shaw decided to develop the technology himself, with the help of software engineers at Baylor. The CRADLE app uses artificial intelligence to find white eye, and was tested by analyzing more than 50,000 pictures taken of 40 children with and without eye disease. In the first few months after it was released, Shaw estimates that it was downloaded about 80,000 times.

Promising technology, but no substitute for professional eye exams

The app is not perfect; it can generate false positives. However, the technology shows promise. An article published in the journal Science Advances stated, “The CRADLE application allows parents to augment clinical leukocoria screening with photography.”

Callout: The app is not a replacement for comprehensive exams by an eye care professional, but may encourage parents to be proactive and schedule those important exams. 

“This app … may help encourage parents to take their children in for those very important exams or at least warn them of potential problems. I have used it for several little ones and found it to be accurate but not infallible, but when combined with regular exams it is a very helpful tool to monitor eye health.”

The message to parents of young patients should be the importance of regular, comprehensive eye exams performed by an eye care professional. If you are an optometrist specializing in children’s vision problems, promote that fact on your website and marketing materials using short, easy-to-understand videos like Rendia’s “Scheduling Children’s Eye Exams.”

illustration of doctor and family

 

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