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Pioneering cataract test for babies has worldwide potential

Researchers are calling on new parents to back a national study to help prevent the most common cause of preventable childhood blindness, congenital cataracts.

As early detection is vital, babies in the UK are automatically tested for cataracts using a bright torch called an ophthalmoscope soon after birth. However, the test, which is not easy to evaluate, particularly in the eyes of black and Asian babies due to pigmentation, can miss a third of cases.

Dr Louise Allen 500 x 714
Dr Louise Allen

During the study babies’ eyes will be photographed with an additional digital camera called a Neocam, which was invented by consultant paediatric ophthalmologist, Dr Louise Allen from Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge.

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The Neocam

The no contact, hand-held, device is easy for maternity staff to use and the digital images taken utilising infrared light can be shared with other experts for a second opinion, even if they are miles away.

If cataracts are present at birth, surgery is needed within the first few months of life to prevent blindness. Dr Allen was frustrated at the number of cataracts being missed at screening or misdiagnosed, putting parents through needless worry.

Dr Allen, an affiliated assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University Cambridge and a member of a number of specialist professional advisory groups, said:

“Parents have been very positive about the imaging test - it only takes a few minutes and causes no discomfort.

“Many have commented that it is nice to be able to see the images, understand why it is so important to screen for cataracts in babies, and feel happier that their baby may benefit from the additional screening test.

She added:

There has been a lot of enthusiasm by midwives and research teams to participate and they are finding it a very rewarding study to run in their units, both because of the one-to-one contact it gives them with new parents, but also from knowing that the results may impact new-born eye screening programmes across the world.

Dr Louise Allen
DIvO study logo: illustration of four babies above the text 'DIvO Because babies get cataracts too'

Since August last year more than 3,000 families have taken advantage of the ‘Digital Imaging versus Ophthalmoscopy Study’ (DIvO), and now it is expanding fast with the aim of testing 140,000 new-borns between now and August 2025.

The study is live at several hospitals, including:

  • The Rosie maternity unit, Cambridge
  • Southmead Hospital, Bristol
  • University Hospital Coventry & Warwickshire
  • St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester
  • John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford
  • Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth
  • Queen’s Hospital Romford

There are plans to roll out the study further to:

  • Liverpool Women’s Hospital
  • Nottingham University Hospital
  • Royal United Hospital, Bath
  • London’s Whipps Cross,
  • Newham University Hospital
  • The Royal London Hospital
  • Queen's Charlottes
  • Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital
  • Northwick Park Hospital
  • Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospital
  • Sheffield Teaching Hospital
  • Southampton University Hospital

Eventually 25 hospitals – listed in full on the study website (opens in a new tab) - will be taking part and if the results with Neocam show an improvement in detection rates, it could change the way eye screening tests are done across the UK – and worldwide.

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Professor Jugnoo Rahi
Lindsey Rose - Anglia Ruskin University 500 x 500
Lindsey Rose

Working on the study with Dr Allen is Professor Jugnoo Rahi of Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, and senior midwifery lecturer, Lindsey Rose, of Anglia Ruskin University.

Early prototype development and testing was funded by Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust and the study is possible thanks to the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Efficacy and Mechanism Evaluation (EME) Programme.

Dr Allen said:

We are incredibly grateful to ACT and the NIHR for supporting the development of Neocam. We hope to confirm that it has many benefits over the current screening process and will help to ensure that babies get the right treatment at the right time.

Dr Louise Allen