News Feature | January 4, 2017

Nikon, Verily Partnership Combines Machine-Learning With Advanced Retinal Imaging

By Suzanne Hodsden

Nikon and Verily have signed a strategic partnership to co-develop advanced screening technology for eye diseases associated with diabetes. By pairing machine-learning capabilities with next-generation retinal imaging, the companies hope to offer earlier diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular edema — two leading causes of blindness worldwide.

Diabetic retinopathy is caused by changes to the blood vessels in the retina, located in the back of the eye. If the condition goes untreated, these changes can lead to swelling in the macula, a condition called diabetic macular edema. Though all forms of diabetic eye disease can cause blindness, early detection and intervention can slow progression of certain diseases and prevent or delay loss of vision, according to the National Eye Institute.

Nikon entered the medical sector with the 2015 acquisition of UK-based retinal imaging firm, Optos, in a deal worth $400 million. At the time, Optos held 30 percent of the world’s retinal imaging market but primarily targeted North America. Acquisition by Nikon was projected to significantly expand Optos’ foothold in the global market, according to a press release.

Meanwhile, the deal allows Nikon to “enter the medical sector to leverage its optical technologies into the medical industry,” said Nikon President Kazuo Ushida, who expressed confidence that the companies together would create a “world class retina player.”

By collaborating with Verily, Nikon plans to combine the Optos’ “wide-field” retinal imaging technology — which can create digital images of 82 percent of a patient’s retina in a single capture — with machine-learning technology developed at Verily. Enhanced solutions would create more efficient eye exams that could potentially diagnose diabetic eye disease earlier than is currently possible, according to Nikon’s press release.

Verily recently teamed up with Sanofi — a French pharmaceutical company — to launch Onduo, a joint venture aimed at addressing diabetes management with $500 million invested by the two companies. Onduo plans to leverage Verily’s expertise in miniaturized electronics with Sanofi’s clinical expertise to co-develop insulin pens and online services.

Last July, Google’s DeepMind was given access to over one million National Health Service (NHS) eye scans to develop potential artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for advanced vision diagnostics.

“We set up DeepMind because we wanted to use AI to help some of society’s biggest challenges,” said DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman, who added that diabetic retinopathy was one of the fastest growing causes of blindness worldwide.

Twenty-nine million Americans currently live with diabetes, and over seven million have been diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of diabetic retinopathy cases doubled to 7.69 million, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). By 2050, that number is expected to reach 14 million.