Citizen scientists train artificial intelligence to detect eye diseases

Brussels, 11 February 2019: Today, VITO, the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and the Diabetes League launch the online citizen science project ‘Oog voor Diabetes’ (Eye for Diabetes). The project calls on citizens to help create a computer programme that recognises the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy (an eye disease that affects diabetics). Once the computer programme is up and running, it can lower the threshold for easier research into diabetic retinopathy, e.g. at the general practitioner, pharmacist or optician. Persons in whom indications for the disease are found can then be referred to an ophthalmologist at an early stage. The sooner the disease is detected, the better it can be treated. To fine-tune the software, the researchers are still looking for participants for the citizen science project!

In Belgium, 1 million people with high blood sugar values are eligible for the prevention and treatment of diabetes. The excess of sugar in the blood in people with diabetes causes, among other things, damage to the small blood vessels of the retina. This can lead to diabetic retinopathy. The first stages of diabetic retinopathy often go unnoticed because the patients have no complaints or impaired vision.

However, it is important that the diagnosis is made as early as possible: the damage to the Terina can not be repaired and if the disease remains untreated, it can lead to loss of vision.

Diabetic retinopathy affects about 1 in 3 people with diabetes and the risk of retinal damage increases with the duration of the disease. 85 to 95 % of people who have diabetes for more than 20 years develop diabetic retinopathy.

MONA: artificial intelligence to detect eye diseases

Flemish research organisation VITO is now developing software that is capable of analysing images of the retina and identifying symptoms of diabetic retinopathy. This software is called MONA. The ambition is to deploy MONA in the first-line screening at the optician, GP or pharmacist. They can then refer persons with an indication of the disease to an ophthalmologist for further examination. In this way, diabetic retinopathy is detected faster and a better preventive approach in the health sector is made possible.

Citizen science: non-experts become scientists

To fine-tune the artificial intelligence behind MONA, thousands of retinal images are needed on which the characteristics of diabetic retinopathy are indicated by a human being. These analysed images serve as teaching material to improve the software.

The retinal images that have yet to be analysed are saved in a public database. For this, Eye for Diabetes calls upon citizen scientists – no specialised academics, but ordinary citizens without prior knowledge. You do not need more than a computer and an internet connection to become a citizen scientist. The online application of the project teaches you step by step to recognise and indicate the symptoms. Every analysed image teaches MONA to work more precisely and efficiently.

Create awareness

Today, 1 in 12 Belgians has diabetes and that share is rising rapidly. By 2030, this number is expected to rise to 1 in 10. Worldwide, more than 500 million people will have diabetes in 2030.

Eye for Diabetes wants to create awareness among the population. In the first place among people with diabetes: it is very important that an eye examination takes place annually at the ophthalmologist.

Patrick De Boever, coordinator of the Eye for Diabetes project: “Visiting the ophthalmologist often only happens when symptoms occur and usually at a late stage of the disease. However, with an image of your retina and software to analyse it automatically, the disease can be detected at an early stage.”

Secondly, the project wants to make all citizens more aware of diabetes. There is a strong link between type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, and an unhealthy lifestyle: high-calorie diet, insufficient exercise and smoking greatly increase the risk.

Patrick De Boever: “We hope that the involvement of the citizen in this citizen science project will increase the knowledge about diabetes in society. We also want to inform more people than just the citizen scientists. We do this, among other things, via our online presence, during events, and in close cooperation with the Diabetes League. We also work together with students in teacher training at VUB on a teaching package on diabetes for secondary education.”

Eye for Diabetes: the project and the partners

Eye for Diabetes was selected in 2018 as one of the projects for the call for citizen science projects of the Department of Economy, Science and innovation within the Flemish government.

VITO’s Health unit coordinates this partnership. They develop the MONA software and created the online application for the citizen scientists.

Research group SMIT (Studies on Media, Innovation and Technology), linked to imec and the Free University of Brussels (VUB), monitors the user experience and the social impact of the project.

Wtnschp, the science communication expertise centre Brussels, coordinates communication.

The Diabetes League provides substantive expertise and ensures the connection with an important group of stakeholders: diabetes patients and medical professionals in the field.

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