Biomed funding starts to see results

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a blinding and incurable eye disorder that is often diagnosed too late because it takes a specialist's trained eye to spot the tiny yellowish deposits in the eye that are an early sign of the condition.

But a new computer programme will soon be available that can detect those deposits in images from regular fundus cameras found in general practice clinics and optometrist shops. It could pave the way for earlier and more widespread detection of AMD.

The result of a collaborative effort between the Singapore Eye Research Institute and the Institute of Infocomm Research, THALIA has been licensed to a local company to be incorporated into an eye-screening system. It was one of the projects funded by the four-year-old Biomedical Engineering Programme (BEP), under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

Launched to encourage the development of medical technology by homegrown clinicians and engineers, the programme has invested more than $30 million in 50 projects, 10 of which are in clinical trials.

One in 10 inventions is also on the way to commercialisation.

Although Singapore's medical technology scene is relatively young, some results are beginning to show, said Associate Professor Tan Sze Wee, deputy executive director of A*Star's biomedical research council.

Today, there are more than 30 companies in the industry, up from just a few five years ago. The number of research and development activities in this field will at least double in the next five years.

The BEP is now the main grant provider for medical technology in the public sector. Its next grant call opens on Dec 12. Many of the earlier projects centred on cardiology, ophthalmology and neurology, with newer areas being obstetrics and gynaecology and orthopaedics.

Another project being developed is "brain-computer interface" technology to find out if it can help keep dementia at bay.

Three times a week, 30 people aged 60 to 70 make their way to a room where they put on special headgear to play computer games.

The gear, embedded with electrodes, detects brainwaves emitted while a game player is paying attention. Once he is distracted, the game stalls.

Preliminary results have been promising, said Associate Professor Lee Tih Shih of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School who was involved in the project.

"A common concern among the elderly is memory loss. But there is no magic pill that they can take," said the neuropsychiatrist. "However, the brain is plastic and we can retrain it."

The new technology developed here will be tested for use in day-care centres or even at home, added Prof Lee.

"Our medical technology journey started late but we are starting to see success," said Prof Tan.

A key factor in this has been the closer collaboration between doctors and engineers nurtured by the programme. "In the past, they worked separately. But hospitals are now more open to innovation," he said. "Today, the doctor helps to guide engineers on what they need to do."

The lead researcher on the AMD project, Dr Damon Wong of the Institute of Infocomm Research, said input from doctors was "very valuable". "It would be impossible for a computer scientist like me to come up with such a system - it is the doctor who provides the information for us to design the algorithm," he said.

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