Close-up of a woman's eye

UK company Visulytix is using Microsoft Azure to tackle the leading causes of blindness

A British company is using Microsoft’s cloud technology to help eyecare specialists diagnose major diseases much earlier.

Visulytix has created a program called Pegasus that sends the 2D and 3D eye scans that people have had taken in optometry stores, screening centres and doctors’ surgeries to the Azure cloud, and uses artificial intelligence to spot early signs of glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration in seconds.

The healthcare professional conducting the scan then looks at the regions of the image the AI has highlighted as potentially showing signs of those diseases, and decides whether to refer the patient to see a specialist.

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Visulytix believes that using Pegasus in optometry and screening would improve early detection of these conditions, which can lead to blindness, by reducing false positive and false negative diagnoses. It would also save the UK economy billions of pounds in associated healthcare costs, the company added.

Jay Lakhani, Chief Executive of Visulytix, said the key to preventing blindness was catching conditions early, and AI is helping healthcare professionals do that.

“The problem with many blinding eye diseases such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy is that they can develop slowly, with patients often unaware they have a condition,” he said. “There’s no sudden impact on your vision, which means people may not notice them for quite a long time, while quietly, losing sight. The diseases can already be quite advanced by the time patients present to eye services, at which point the conditions could be irreversible.”

“We see our solution as ‘decision support’ – AI and doctor working together. What Pegasus does is upskill the user, so they can operate with a specialist’s level of accuracy. AI-provided decision support needs to be used to counter the fact that there simply aren’t enough ophthalmologists. Pegasus can fill that void by upskilling non-specialists so they make better referrals, leading to better use of healthcare resources. Simultaneously, by reducing false negatives, Pegasus can help to identify patients who would have otherwise gone blind in time thereby reducing the pressure on the NHS, as well as the patient’s family and friends.”

Glaucoma is one of the most common ophthalmic conditions. According to the BMJ, the management of patients with glaucoma constitutes a major part of ophthalmologists’ workload, accounting for 23 per cent of all follow-up attendances to specialists in the UK. There are more than one million glaucoma-related NHS visits per year.

The speed at which Pegasus can work, with results in seconds, is helped by the service being hosted on Azure. Microsoft’s cloud platform is stable, secure and flexible, so it can cope with sudden spikes in demand.

Everything you need to know about Microsoft’s cloud

“In certain emerging markets, such as parts of Asia, not everybody has a good internet connection,” Lakhani added. “We see that our customers take a lot of images in low connectivity areas, go back to an area of high connectivity and upload all those images at the same time. This results in some users uploading thousands of images at a time because they want to do the analysis of these images in one go. Because of that, we see a lot of random spikes in web traffic but Azure can handle it. I think it’s great.”

Visulytix is about to start a pilot in India that will see the company use Pegasus as they give eye exams to tens of thousands of people in remote villages. With diabetes reaching epidemic levels in the country, according to The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, cases of diabetic retinopathy are rising. Of the estimated 425 million people diagnosed with diabetes globally, 82 million are in India. “We can definitely add value in parts of India where people have little to no access to eye screening,” Lakhani said. “These are areas where we can make the biggest impact. People in those villages would not receive eye screening without help from AI services such as Pegasus.”

The NHS recommends that most people should get their eyes tested every two years, but this should be more frequent if you have diabetes, are aged 40 or over and have a family history of glaucoma, or aged over 70.