He Created an Eye-Saving App

After his infant son lost his eye to retinoblastoma, a type of retinal cancer, this father found a way to save others from the same fate. 

By Marc Peyser Published May 6, 2021 19:40:10 IST
2021-05-06T19:40:10+05:30
2021-05-06T19:40:10+05:30
He Created an Eye-Saving App Elizabeth and Bryan Shaw with Noah (far right) and his siblings; Credit: Mariah Evans

Like almost every set of new parents, Bryan and Elizabeth Shaw started snapping pictures of their son, Noah, practically from the moment he was born. When he was about three months old, Elizabeth noticed something odd when she took his picture. The flash on their digital camera created the typical red dot in the center of Noah’s left eye, but the right eye had a white spot at the center, almost as if the flash was being reflected back at the camera by something.

When Elizabeth mentioned the strange phenomenon to their paediatrician, she shined a light into Noah’s eye, saw the same white reflection, and immediately sent the family to an ophthalmologist. A white reflection instead of a red one is a tell-tale sign of retinal cancer, and that is exactly what Noah had. He endured months of chemotherapy and radiation, but doctors ultimately could not save his eye.

Retinoblastoma, the scientific name of Noah’s tumour, is treatable if caught early. Bryan Shaw couldn’t help but wonder whether there were signs he’d missed. He went back over every baby picture of Noah he could find—­thousands of them—and discovered the first white spot in a photo taken when Noah was 12 days old. As time went on, it appeared more frequently. “By the time he was four months old, it was showing up in 25 per cent of the pictures taken of him per month,” Bryan, a chemistry professor at Baylor University in Texas, told People.

 

image-94_041421043632.jpgThe telltale white spot in Noah’s right eye; Courtesy: Bryan Shaw :

 

It was too late for Noah’s eye, but Bryan was determined to put his hard-won insights to good use. He created a database that charted the cancer’s appearance in every photo. He also collected photos and compiled the data from eight other children with retino­blastoma. Armed with that data, he began to work with colleagues in Baylor’s computer science department to develop a smartphone app that can scan the photos in the user’s camera roll to search for white eye and can be used as a kind of ophthalmoscope. Called White Eye Detector, it is now available for free on Google Play and in Apple’s App Store.

“I just kept telling myself, I really need to do this,” Bryan told People. “This disease is tough to detect. Not only could this software save vision, but it can save lives.”

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