Can parents use digital cameras and smart phones to potentially screen their children for the most common form of pediatric eye cancer? A joint study by Baylor University and Harvard Medical School researchers says “yes.”
Retinoblastoma is a rare but aggressive eye cancer that mostly occurs in children under the age of 5. Dr. Bryan Shaw is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor; he studied metals and proteins, not cancer. That is, until his son Noah was diagnosed with the disease.
How did Shaw and his wife notice something might be wrong? From photographs. When Noah was around three months old, his parents noticed that he didn’t show the typical “red eye” in photos. Shaw’s wife, Elizabeth, read that “white eye” in young children could be a sign of the cancer, and took the matter to a doctor; their pediatrician agreed, sending the family along to an ophthalmologist, who confirmed their fears. It was retinoblastoma.
Noah eventually lost the eye, but today he is an otherwise healthy 5-year-old. But their discovery started Shaw thinking; could digital photography really help improve diagnosis of the disease? After studying thousands of photos of nine children with retinoblastoma and 19 children without the disease, Shaw was able to determine that while “white eye” is not always a symptom of advanced retinoblastoma, it can be a symptom, even in the cancer’s earliest stages. (Looking back through family photos, Shaw found that Noah started displaying the symptoms when he was just 12 days old.)
In the United States, children with retinoblastoma have a 95% survival rate, but that figure drops below 50% for children in developing countries. Even in the U.S, pediatric eye exams aren’t common, and even less so in developing countries. But cell phones and digital cameras are becoming increasingly common everywhere, equipping parents with a tool that just might save lives.
Sic ’em, Dr. Shaw!