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Shlomit Schaal develops methods for early detection of diabetic retinopathy

Early detection key to retaining vision

The Women in Science video series on UMassMedNow highlights the many areas of research conducted by women at UMass Medical School.

Shlomit Schaal, MD, PhD, chair and professor of ophthalmology, studies diabetic retinopathy disease, the most common cause of vision loss among people with diabetes and the leading cause of vision impairment and blindness among working-age adults, according to the National Eye Institute. Dr. Schaal, a retina surgeon and a clinician–scientist, believes that early detection is critical to preventing blindness. She is focused on research to develop automatic algorithms that allow better identification of microscopic changes in the retina that may indicate the beginning of disease.

“Our lab is focused on developing novel methods for automatic detection of changes in the retina that occur as result of diabetes,” Schaal said. “The ability to detect early changes in the retina in diabetic patients carries the promise to improve patient care and to reduce health care cost.”

Diabetic retinopathy occurs as a result of chronically elevated blood sugar levels. The tiny blood vessels in the retina are damaged as a result of diabetes. Patients with early stages of diabetic retinopathy often do not have any symptoms, and indeed can see quite well until the disease has progressed and their vision is affected.

“The challenge is to convince people to go see an eye doctor, when they do not experience any visual symptoms. However, diabetic retinopathy may be present despite normal vision,” Schaal said. “Our automatic algorithm is based upon machine learning, and could be used in the future in primary care physicians’ offices, eliminating the need to schedule a visit with an eye doctor, if the report is normal.”

Working in collaboration with bioengineers to analyze images of scans of the retina, Schaal and colleagues at the University of Louisville, where she previously worked, developed an algorithm for the early detection of subtle changes in the retina of diabetic patients.

Schaal came to UMMS this past fall.

“I saw in UMass Medical School a great opportunity for collaborating in research at a world class institution with great scientists,” Schaal said. She is also encouraged by the ability to collaborate with gene therapists in the Horae Gene Therapy Center to develop new treatments for eye diseases.

Schaal is also chair of the Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Services at UMass Memorial Medical Center.

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