Father’s blindness leads to son’s vision for eye disease cure

An Auckland bioengineer has made research into screening for eye diseases his life’s obsession in honour of his father who went blind as a boy.

Dr Ehsan Vaghefi of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences is behind the innovative MyIScope device that has just received nearly $1m in funding in the 2018 round of the Endeavour Fund, New Zealand’s largest contestable research fund.

“My father went blind when he was only 9 years old, due to an undetected eye disease, called juvenile glaucoma. Back then (60 years ago) they did not have the technology to screen and diagnose this condition, and blindness was unavoidable for the children who suffered from this disease.”

Due to his father’s blindness, he became deeply involved with the Iranian Blind Association from an early age, and screening for diseases of the eye became his life obsession.

“My dream is for no child to suffer blindness or to see their parents losing their vision. I hope that all my education, research, amazing work by my team members and this particular funding from MBIE will help me get closer to achieving my dream.”

He was informed by email of his funding success 24 hours before the public announcement.

“I had a sleepless night, I was too excited and planning all the things that we should do now, like hiring new staff, adding to our office and lab space, new experiments. Then my co-applicant Dr David Squirrell came to see me in the morning, and we were literally jumping around with excitement!”

My dream is for no child to suffer blindness or to see their parents losing their vision. I hope that all my education, research, amazing work by my team members and this particular funding from MBIE will help me get closer to achieving my dream.”

Dr Ehsan Vaghefi

After completing a Bachelor of Science and a Masters degree in biomedical engineering focused on medical imaging of the eye (ophthalmic imaging) he came to the University of Auckland in 2016. Here he took up a PhD project in Bioengineering (supervised by Profs Hunter and Donaldson), which led to a novel modality of imaging the anterior eye. After graduation, he received a lectureship position at the school of Optometry, where he is continuing his research in ophthalmic imaging instrumentation.

In 2018, Dr Vaghefi and Dr Squirrell (ADHB) founded their own start-up company, Toku Eyes (http://www.tokueyes.com/) which is dedicated to developing novel ophthalmic imaging modalities.

Dr Vaghefi says they came up with the MyIScope idea and design after seeing how the current model of eye health care used to diagnose and treat vision-threatening disease in New Zealand is expensive and is concentrated around eyecare clinics or private optometry practices.

MyIScope is a laser-based imaging device that will be capable of screening for early signs of blindness, affordably and quickly. MyIScope is portable and will be operated by a trained nurse and is inexpensive to manufacture so it will eliminate the barriers to eyecare access for lower socioeconomic and remote communities in New Zealand and overseas.

It will also be extremely helpful in developing countries such as India, China and Indonesia, where optometry does not exist as a profession and vision loss, due to lack of basic ophthalmic screening services, is prevalent.

Dr Vaghefi says he and his team of researchers are already working with independent optometrists and primary health care providers to get the MyIScope out and in use.

“In the future, we will train nurses and community care providers to operate MyIScope in their local communities. We will seek user feedback on the operation and design to optimize our technology platform.”

They are planning for the first pre-clinical trial early next year, and first clinical trial early 2020.

The faculty’s Associate Dean (Research) Professor Andrew Shelling, says the funding is a boost to a rapidly growing area of medical research in New Zealand.

“There is a strong future for MyIScope, which will help grow and diversify New Zealand’s emerging MedTech sector, valued at $1.5B in 2017,” Professor Shelling says.

“This funding is great news for Dr Vaghefi and the faculty. I wish him and his team all the best in what I know is a positive future.”

Dr Vaghefi is also thankful for the support of his colleagues, head of school Prof Steven Dakin, and Dr David Squirrell and Dr Diana Siew.

Notes for editor:

  • A total of $249.1 million has been awarded to 69 new research projects through MBIE Endeavour Fund. The funds aim to improve the lives of New Zealanders by enhancing New Zealand’s economy, environment and society.
  • The total awarded to the University of Auckland is $41,683,544 (over five years).

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