AI-based device an example of innovation at work

By Brooks Jackson / Guest Column

Innovation is a value most companies and organizations embrace. But what does innovation truly represent?

For some people, innovation is synonymous with invention, and they see it as any idea that feels new, different or exciting. That’s not a bad thing, and indeed, new ideas certainly have the potential for innovation.

Real innovation, however, means taking an idea and maximizing its potential. It happens when you develop and execute an idea in a way that changes how we think about an existing problem, process or application. Ultimately, innovation creates real change that benefits people, industry and society.

The power of innovation is clearly evident in the work being done at IDx, a University of Iowa spinout company based at the UI Research Park in Coralville.

As part of a UI Health Care presentation to the state Board of Regents during its June 6 meeting in Cedar Falls, one of our faculty members – Dr. Michael Abramoff, a professor in the UI Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, and founder and president of IDx  gave an overview of the company’s breakthrough product.

That product, called IDx-DR, epitomizes innovation at work. In April, Dr. Abramoff and his IDx colleagues received U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorization to market IDx-DR, a medical device that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to detect diabetic retinopathy in adults who have diabetes.

IDx-DR is the first AI device authorized by the FDA that provides a screening decision without the need for a clinician to interpret the results. This makes it usable by health care providers who may not normally be involved in eye care.

Much of the research used to develop the IDx technology was conducted by Dr. Abramoff, a retinal specialist at the UI, and his colleagues, and licensed through the UI Research Foundation.

Providers at the diabetes clinic at the UI Health Care location at Iowa River Landing began using IDx-DR – which uses AI, software and a retinal camera – to screen patients for diabetic retinopathy on June 12. Plans are underway to expand the use of the system across our health care enterprise and, in collaboration with outside investors and other business partners, to health care systems across the country and world.

People with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are at risk for diabetic retinopathy, which affects 7.7 million Americans and is a leading cause of blindness. Early detection is key, because treating it early can greatly reduce a patient’s risk of losing their eyesight.

Diabetic retinopathy often lacks early symptoms, however, so regular retinal exams are needed to diagnose the condition before irreversible vision loss occurs.

Previously, a retinal exam meant an appointment with an ophthalmologist. The new AI-based IDx-DR system can be used by trained primary care or diabetes care providers during patients’ routine clinic visits as part of their ongoing diabetes care. The screening results are available within minutes – without the need for an ophthalmologist to interpret the findings. If the system detects more than mild diabetic retinopathy, the patient is referred to an eye specialist for follow-up and treatment.

For diabetes patients – many of whom do not or cannot schedule a yearly diabetic retinopathy exam as part of their care – this is a time-saving and travel-saving convenience. Most important, it’s a major advance in diabetes care in terms of helping prevent vision loss. More than 24,000 diabetes patients in the United States needlessly lose their vision due to diabetic retinopathy, according to Dr. Abramoff.

Without question, artificial intelligence will continue to transform how health care is delivered, and an autonomous AI system like the IDx-DR is a great example.

It’s also a reminder of how technology transfer plays an important part in the university’s overall mission – leveraging UI-based research in ways that lead to new applications and real-world solutions.

Brooks Jackson, MD, MBA, is University of Iowa vice president for medical affairs and dean of the UI Carver College of Medicine.