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Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Diabetes-related research at IU School of Optometry advances with two NIH awards

Oct. 7, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An Indiana University School of Optometry researcher and the IU spinout company she formed to develop a new diagnostic camera have both received grants from federal agencies to advance work toward preventing vision loss in diabetes patients.

Eye scan device

Indiana University optical engineer Matt Muller, foreground, senior scientist Benno Petrig and Ann Elsner, director of IU School of Optometry's Borish Center for Opthalmic Research, with the prototype laser scanning digital camera they believe will help save the vision of diabetes sufferers.

Print-Quality Photo

Ann Elsner, director of IU's Borish Center for Ophthalmic Research, has been awarded $379,548 from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), while Elsner's IU spinout company, Aeon Imaging, has received another $247,389 from the Small Business Innovation Research program of the National Eye Institute (NEI). Both the NIBIB and the NEI are agencies within the National Institutes of Health.

"We are delighted to see that NIH is continuing to support Dr. Elsner's work on a low-cost digital camera," said Sarita Soni, interim dean of the IU School of Optometry. "This device has the potential to reduce the devastating effects of diabetes on the retina -- through early diagnosis, appropriate treatment and follow-up."

Elsner and her team of researchers are in the final stages of developing a low-cost laser scanning digital camera that could broaden access worldwide to a diagnostic tool used to screen patients in the prevention of diabetic retinopathy. Nearly three-fourths of the more than 24 million Americans with diabetes, if they have the disease for more than 10 years, will suffer from some form of diabetic retinopathy.

With the new grants Elsner will be able to move forward with basic research and put the device into field trials through a new partnership with researchers at the University of California Berkeley School of Optometry. Elsner said that partnership with UC Berkeley could set the stage for a supplemental, Phase II grant of up to $2 million tied to the $247,389 from the SBIR program.

"I thought they were our strongest possible partner in the United States, and we chased them mercilessly," Elsner said of partnering with UC Berkeley's program. "We will be able to work with them at their health centers and make the changes to the device that might be necessary. We're excited about this collaboration, because it will allow for a fresh perspective and more independence in the assessment of the device."

The IU team will have 10 months before it presents its advances to NIH reviewers who will then determine if the research warrants the Phase II NBIR funding.

"We have no guarantees, but we got a good review," she said. "Two months before our Phase I period ends we'll show our successes, show that our milestones were realized, and then within the next two years we would receive the Phase II funds."

Since 2006 Elsner and Aeon Imaging have additionally received more than $635,000 in support from the National Institutes of Health, $100,000 from the Indiana Economic Development Corp., and $75,000 from the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Initiative for development of the new imaging device.

The new camera uses near infrared light, high-contrast laser scanning, a confocal aperture that minimizes light scatter in the eye, and inexpensive two-dimensional sensors to obtain a high contrast black and white image of the optic nerve head, which is the gateway for blood vessels into the eye. Veins and arteries carry blood and oxygen to different regions of the retina, and diabetic retinopathy can cause hemorrhaging that allows blood to leak onto the retina and cause blind spots.

Working with Elsner are IU senior scientist Benno Petrig, optical engineer Matt Muller and Purdue University mechanical engineer Henry Zhang. The new NIBIB funds, provided through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, also will allow Elsner to hire Christopher Clark, a doctor of optometry who is also a Ph.D. candidate in the IU School of Optometry.

To speak with Elsner or Soni, please contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-856-1896 or