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Researcher at Washington University in St Louis awarded up to $20 million to create portable OCT device


Chao Zhou, PhD, a professor of biomedical engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering at the university, and team received the award from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).

(Image Credit: AdobeStock/Pakin)

(Image Credit: AdobeStock/Pakin)

The Washington University in St Louis (WashU) has been awarded up to $20 million from Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) to create a portable optical coherence tomography (OCT) system.

Chao Zhou, PhD, a professor of biomedical engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering at the university, is at the head of the project and plans on creating the OCT system “on photonic integrated circuits (PIC) and custom-designed electronic integrated circuits that could offer advanced eye screening to many more patients and at a lower cost.”1

“The integration of photonic and electronic integrated circuits simplifies the assembly process and lowers production costs, making OCT more accessible to a wider range of health-care facilities and patients,” Zhou said. “Integrating components on a photonic chip also enhances overall stability and robustness, making these systems less susceptible to environmental influences and wear and tear, ensuring a longer lifespan and lower maintenance costs.”1

According to a release from WashU,1 the contract is part of “ARPA-H’s first call for proposals for unconventional approaches to improving health outcomes across patient populations, communities, diseases and health conditions through breakthrough research and technological advancements.”

Zhou says that the proposed OCT device would weigh only a few pounds and take high-resolution 3D scans of the retina all while being a fraction of the cost of traditional OCT devices.

Zhou’s group also invented the space-division multiplexing optical coherence tomography (SDM-OCT), a technique that takes multiple high-definition OCT images simultaneously with a single detector that is “at least 10 times faster than existing OCT scanners.”1 While these devices may be faster than a traditional OCT, the extensive time and labor required to assemble the components limits their broad use.

With the new, portable OCT, Zhou will assemble the components in a photonic chip using advancements in complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) processes used in the semiconductor industry. According to Zhou, this will streamline manufacturing and lower costs.

The researchers say that the proposed OCT is more than 50 times faster than existing commercial OCT systems at a fraction of the cost.1

The team of researchers collaborating with Zhou include Shu-Wei Huang, Aravind Nagulu, Rithwick Rajagopal, MD, PhD, Margaret Reynolds, MD, and Lan Yang.

“I am enthusiastic about the potential clinical benefits offered by Dr. Zhou’s new system, as it may allow us to perform much higher-resolution scans and include simultaneous peripheral scanning in addition to the retinal center, all while taking a fraction of the time required by currently available systems,” Rajagopal said. “We may therefore be able to scan patients who are unable to cooperate for traditional ocular imaging, including young children and adults with disabilities, without the need for pupillary dilation or sedated exams.”

The team already has several US and international patents related to the SDM-OCT, and is working with WashU’s Office of Technology Management to patent applications for the improved design. Zhou and team will also work with ARPA-H Project Accelerator Transition Innovation Office and with the Food & Drug Administration on regulatory considerations to clear the pathway for future clinical translation.1

  1. WashU awarded up to $20M to create portable device to scan for eye diseases. Press release; February 13, 2024. Accessed February 15, 2024. https://source.wustl.edu/2024/02/washu-awarded-20m-to-create-portable-device-to-scan-for-eye-diseases/
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