You don’t have to be an optometrist to understand eyes are complicated pieces of human anatomy. Fragile little gelatinous orbs housing a galaxy of rods, cones, capillaries and other delicate tissue, the eyes are subtle when functioning and enigmatic in their failures. Catching abnormalities in the eye can be complicated, and as a result, by the time many conditions are caught, it is often too late.
Enter Boston’s Intelon Optics. A current resident of the Luminate NY incubator, Intelon owns the Brillouin Optic Scanner System, or BOSS, a tool that uses near-infrared light to scan the eye and create a biomechanical map. It can show tissue irregularities, where tissue has hardened or softened, and be used to catch cataracts, myopia and other eye conditions in their infancy.
“In the market, most of the technologies are based on measuring the shape of the ocular structures, (for instance), the cornea, which is in the front of the eye, but there wasn’t really anything that measured structural products, such as biomechanics and elasticity,” said vice president of engineering Dimitri Chernyak. “The technology we’re developing really captures that need to measure physical characteristics of the cornea and tissues.”
To understand how BOSS works, you have to jump back nearly a century to the work of Leon Brillouin. A pioneering French quantum physicist, Brillouin postulated that when light makes contact with a material surface, a portion of the transmitted light will refract in a certain direction. Known as Brillouin scattering, this phenomenon can be used to determine material characteristics of the surface with which the light waves have interacted.
(Brillouin) “observed that when light interacts with material, particularly transparent material, a lot of the light goes through, a small portion gets reflected back, but an even smaller portion gets reflected back at a slightly different wavelength, which is the color of light,” Chernyak said. “You could imagine it like a shift in the rainbow, like if you shine a green light and a little shines back in the red spectrum. This change is based on certain properties in the tissue, and that has to do with the speed of sound in the tissue.”
The speed of sound in tissues is highly dependent on the composition of the tissue, Chernyak said. Typically, the harder a material is, the faster sound moves through the material. By measuring the slight differences in the wavelengths, the BOSS technology can determine incredibly minor abnormalities that could later form into more serious eye issues. The resulting image is similar to a topographical map, albeit one which creates a three-dimensional image of the eye and its abnormalities.
“There is a huge opportunity in screening patients for various preconditions before they manifest themselves,” Chernyak said. “To give you an example, there is a huge epidemic of progressive myopia, or nearsightedness, particularly in Asia, where nearly 90 percent of the population have some form of nearsightedness… Ideally, you want to understand which patients, early on, even when they’re children, have that predisposition to progressive myopia. And, the earlier you detect them the earlier you can intervene and protect them before their vision gets worse and worse.”
Technology like BOSS can be critical for our future, not just because myopia is common, but because it’s likely to become even more common. According to a 2015 study by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, in 2000, 22.9 percent of the world’s population suffered from some form of myopia. By 2050, the study estimated that 49.8 percent of the population would have some form of the condition.
That growth is due to a change in understanding of what causes myopia. Traditionally thought to be a strictly hereditary condition, myopia is now recognized by the American Optometric Association as being caused in part by eye use, such as heavy reading, or extended periods in front of a computer. In fact, according to a 2012 article in the medical journal The Lancet, east Asian urban students are suffering from an extremely high rate of myopia, up to the 90 percent Chernyak mentioned, with virtually no apparent genetic explanation. In fact, Chinese people of the same heritage who moved to places like Australia were found to have lower rates of myopia.
In other words, catching myopia early on can be pivotal in both determining risk factors and lessening impact.
“Our hope is that the optometrists will be able to screen a wide variety of patients coming in and identify those who have a predisposition to progressive myopia, to keratoconus, which is another disease of the cornea where it starts bulging out and creates very debilitating visual symptoms,” Chernyak said. “The earlier you can detect it and intervene, the more you can preserve the quality of vision that those patients would have.”
Intelon was born out of technology developed at Massachusetts General Hospital. It is currently headquartered next door and makes frequent use of the hospital’s lab space. That, Chernyak said, is unlikely to change. Intelon is committed to calling Boston home.
However, now in the prototype phase with the intent to begin full-scale manufacturing in 2019, Rochester is likely to play a big role in the company’s future—primarily as its manufacturing hub.
“We have a satellite office here in Rochester, and we’ve been very grateful to the Luminate program for giving us access to mentorship—the local network that’s highly specialized in optics due to Kodak and Xerox,” Chernyak said. “There’s still a lot of expertise and technology around optics in the city that we’re trying to take advantage of by finding a manufacturing partner here. We believe Rochester is one of the ideal options for us to manufacture this complex, opto-medical device.”
Spotlight on Luminate
Ten companies composed of some of the brightest minds in the field of optics, imaging and photonics are fine-tuning their technologies inside NextCorps’ Luminate accelerator. The winners of November’s first Lightning Awards, these companies each received $100,000 in funding, free residency in the accelerator and access to High Tech Rochester’s web of resources and mentoring. On June 28, the most promising of these 10 will receive a total of $2 million in follow-on funding. Leading up to that date, the Rochester Business Journal is featuring profiles of the companies holding the keys to the next chapter in Rochester’s history as the world’s imaging center.