Oculomics: the science of using the eye to diagnose systemic health
Updated: Nov 17
Watch the video for an introduction to oculomics. Read on to discover more.
“Oculomics” first appeared in a paper entitled Insights into Systemic Disease through Retinal Imaging-Based Oculomics, published in February 2020.
Read about the origin of oculomics by Professor Alastair Denniston, INSIGHT strategic advisor and consultant ophthalmologist at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust.
The idea of the eye as a window to the body’s health dates back hundreds, even thousands of years. In ancient times people learnt to recognise how changes on the outside of the eye could be a sign of disease, for example recognising the yellow colour of jaundice. In the last 150 years, the invention of the ophthalmoscope has allowed physicians to discover how changes on the inside of the eye can be a sign of health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Importantly these changes on the inside or the outside of the eye can be the very first indication that something is wrong, potentially leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment.
What makes the eye such a perfect window to systemic health? The eye is unique in that so much of it is transparent. This is important for allowing light in to the eye to enable us to see, but it also allows us to directly look in to the inner workings of the body in a way that is not possible anywhere else. So many critical systems of the body are represented in the eye – the nervous system, the vascular system, the immune system, the metabolic system and so on. In fact the eye and brain have a particularly strong link: the eye actually develops from the brain, so when we look into the eye we are actually looking into a part of the brain and this can give us clues as to what is happening in other parts of the brain. Similarly, when we are looking at the tiny blood vessels at the back of the eye, we know that they are connected to every other blood vessel in the body, and are continuously giving us clues to what is happening everywhere else – ranging from your heart to your big toe.
This is impressive, but it is about to move up to another level. In the last decade, advances in imaging techniques, combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI), have accelerated research into “oculomics”, the term we coined to describe how we can use these technologies to detect and decode the vast amount of health information contained with the eye.
Oculomics combines the words ‘ocular’ - meaning the eye - and ‘omics’, the study of specific biological systems, typically using large-scale data sets. There are different types of ‘omics’, each one giving a different and complementary insight into health. Genomics, for example, focuses on analysing genetic information, and understanding how this relates to health or disease. In oculomics we use modern eye scanners to analyse the eye in microscopic detail, and then compare across millions of other eye scans to identify new signals of disease (‘biomarkers’). These signals may help diagnose or predict health conditions sometimes years before they would otherwise be spotted. There is now a growing body of evidence that routine scans of the retina can reveal early signs of some of the world’s most widespread and challenging conditions – not only diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but also stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s and other conditions.
These breakthroughs have only been possible because of researchers being able to responsibly access appropriate scans and health data, and to do this at large-scale. Enabled by the depth of curated NHS data and cloud infrastructure at INSIGHT, the team of researchers and clinicians at Moorfields, UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, University Hospitals Birmingham and their international collaborators are pioneering oculomics approaches that are allowing us to discover and decode the health signatures hidden in the eye. Together, we can unlock the secrets of the eye to enable earlier detection, diagnosis and treatment, and improve people’s lives through the power of oculomics.
About the author
Prof Alastair Denniston is a consultant ophthalmologist at University Hospitals Birmingham, leading research into the use of health data research and artificial intelligence to improve patient care in the ‘real world’. He is Professor at the University of Birmingham, part of the NIHR Birmingham Biomedical Research Centre and the Biomedical Research Centre for Ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital/UCL, and strategic advisor to INSIGHT.