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Mobile app can detect world’s three leading age-related eye disorders



Two university students have developed a mobile app that can detect within seconds if someone is suffering from a range of serious and potentially debilitating age-related eye conditions.

The brainchild of Igor García Atutxa and Francisca Villanueva, the app uses artificial intelligence to analyse a selfie and issue a diagnosis, directing the taker toward the most appropriate medical specialist.

The app can tell if someone is suffering from three of the world’s most common causes of vision loss and blindness – glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and cataracts.

The project, dubbed BegIA (begia means ‘eye’ in Basque), has been designed for use in areas of the world where patients face barriers to accessing healthcare.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), some 2.2 billion people around the world suffer from some kind of visual impairment or blindness. Half of these cases could have been prevented with early diagnosis.

Francisca Villanueva

Mr García Atutxa and Ms Villanueva, who are both studying on the Master’s Degree in Bioinformatics and Biostatistics at The Open University of Catalonia in Spain (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya), told Agetech World the idea for the app was borne from personal experience.

“A relative suffering from type 2 diabetes began to lose a great deal of sight, to the point that they could no longer drive or read,” explained Mr García Atutxa. “They developed diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease that causes vision loss and whose impact can be reduced with early diagnosis.”

Early diagnosis requires an examination of the back of the eye by an ophthalmology specialist using the correct optical instruments.

But while those living in developed countries and urban areas can usually easily access such services, it can be a major problem for those in rural locations and less advanced regions of the world.

In response Mr García Atutxa, a physicist working in data analysis, and Ms Villanueva, a biochemist specialising in degenerative diseases, developed the pioneering technology that’s able to provide an ophthalmic pre-diagnosis that can distinguish between different diseases at once.

BegIA uses a neural network artificial intelligence algorithm able to leverage deep learning techniques to recognise, by means of a frontal mobile selfie, whether the subject has an eye disease.

Having developed the algorithm, which the pair trained using images supplied by Mexico’s Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, at which Ms Villanueva is a researcher, Mr Garcia Atutxa said they are now “in talks with hospitals and diabetes associations to secure images with greater variability, which will help us to train our algorithm better.”

The app, which follows the principles of the WHO’s VISION 2020 project for the prevention of blindness, has already won the Ramon Molinas Foundation Prize for Social Impact at the 2023 SpinUOC, an Open University of Catalonia entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer programme organised by Hubbik, a mentoring platform for start-ups and spin-offs.

The app’s creators estimate it could be on the market within two years.

The images they have used are of patients with retinopathy, glaucoma or cataracts. What the algorithm does is use calculations to fit the result to the image in question. Mr Garcia Atutxa said: “The more images we get, the more robust our algorithm becomes.”

In addition to the algorithm, the UOC master’s degree students have also created an initial version of the mobile app for Android.

“We entered SpinUOC because we wanted to develop a more sophisticated app that, in addition to detecting diseases, had more functions and could work on any mobile phone with limited computational capacity,” explained Ms Villanueva.

The BegIA mobile app is aimed at both the medical community and potential patients.

In addition to early diagnosis of ophthalmological conditions, it will allow for remote medical monitoring.

Once a doctor has made a diagnosis and set up a treatment plan for someone, they will be able to track its effectiveness and the evolution of the condition via images taken with the app, with no need for the patient to travel and invest large sums of money in ongoing medical care.


Tai chi outperforms conventional exercise for seniors



New findings from 12 studies involving 2,901 participants have demonstrated that tai chi outperforms conventional exercise in improving mobility and balance in seniors.

While tai chi is understood to be beneficial for functional mobility and balance in older adults, such benefits are not well understood due to large variance in research study protocols and observations.

This new review and analysis has now shown that tai chi can induce greater improvement in functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults compared to conventional exercise.

The findings showed the following performance results:

  • The time to complete 50-foot walking was 1.84 seconds faster. 
  • The time to maintain a one-leg stance was 6 seconds longer when eyes were open and 1.65 seconds longer when eyes were closed. 
  • Individuals improved their timed-up-and-go test performance by 0.18 points, indicating quicker standing, walking, and sitting.
  • Individuals taking the functional reach test showed significant improvement with a standardised mean difference of 0.7, suggesting a noteworthy positive impact on the ability to reach and perform daily activities.

Secondary analyses revealed that the use of tai chi with relatively short duration of less than 20 weeks, low total time of less than 24 total hours, and/or focusing on the Yang-style of this ancient form of Chinese martial arts were particularly beneficial for functional mobility and balance as compared to conventional exercise.

“This systematic literature review and meta-analysis are exciting because they provide strong evidence that tai chi is a more efficient strategy to improve functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults, as compared to conventional exercise,” said Brad Manor, Ph.D., director of the Mobility and Falls Program at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research, and associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“This research suggests that tai chi should be carefully considered in future studies and routines of rehabilitative programs for balance and mobility in older adults,” said Bao Dapeng, professor at Beijing Sport University.

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New standards for biomarkers of ageing



A paper has put forward a new framework for standardising the development and validation of biomarkers of ageing to better predict longevity and quality of life.

Led by Harvard researchers, the team has zeroed in on biomarkers of ageing using omic data from population-based studies. 

The team included ageing and longevity expert Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, founder and CEO of AI-driven drug discovery company Insilico Medicine, and the findings appeared in Nature Medicine

Ageing is associated with a number of biological changes including increased molecular and cellular damage, however, researchers do not yet have a standardised means to evaluate and validate biomarkers related to ageing. 

In order to create those standards as well as actionable clinical tools, the team analysed population-based cohort studies built on omic data (data related to biological molecules which can include proteomics, transcriptomics, genomics, and epigenomics) of blood-based biomarkers of ageing. The researchers then compared the predictive strength of different biomarkers, including study design and data collection approaches, and looked at how these biomarkers presented in different populations. 

In order to better assess the impact of ageing using biomarkers, the researchers found that clinicians needed to expand their focus to consider not only mortality as an outcome, but also how biomarkers of aging are associated with numerous other health outcomes, including functional decline, frailty, chronic disease, and disability. They also call for the standardisation of omic data to improve reliability. 

“Omics and biomarkers harmonisation efforts, such as the Biolearn project, are instrumental in validation of biomarkers of aging” said co-first author Mahdi Moqri, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

Biolearn is an open-source project for biomarkers of aging and is helping to harmonise existing ageing biomarkers, unify public datasets, and provide computational methodologies.

The team also emphasised the importance of continued collaborations among research groups on “large-scale, longitudinal studies that can track long-term physiological changes and responses to therapeutics in diverse populations”, and that further work is required to understand how implementation of biomarker evaluation in clinical trials might improve patient quality of life and survival.

“If we hope to have clinical trials for interventions that extend healthy lifespan in humans, we need reliable, validated biomarkers of ageing,” said co-first author Jesse Poganik, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

“We hope that our framework will help prioritise the most promising biomarkers and provide health care providers with clinically valuable and actionable tools.”

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Healthy aging research to receive $115 million



Global non-profit Hevolution Foundation has announced $115 million in funding that makes up 49 new awards under its Geroscience Research Opportunities (HF-GRO) programme.  

As part of Hevolution’s mission to catalyse the healthspan scientific ecosystem and drive transformative breakthroughs in healthy aging, HF-GRO is funding promising pre-clinical research in aging biology and geroscience. 

Through this first wave of HF-GRO awards, Hevolution will invest up to $115 million in this first cohort of 49 selected projects over the next five years. Its second call for proposals under HF-GRO will be announced later this year, offering an additional $115 million to address the significant funding gaps in aging research.  

Dr. Felipe Sierra, Hevolution’s Chief Scientific Officer stated: “These 49 important research projects represent a significant step forward in deepening our understanding of healthy aging. Hevolution’s prime objective is to mobilise greater investment around uncovering the foundational mechanisms behind biological aging. 

“We are steadfast in our belief that by examining the root causes of aging, rather than solely focusing on its associated diseases, we can usher in a brighter future for humanity.” 

HF-GRO awardees include researchers at prestigious institutions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, including the U.S. National Institute on Aging, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Buck Institute, the Mayo Clinic, New York University, and the University of California San Francisco, among many others. 

The American Federation for Aging Research is providing programmatic support for the HF-GRO program, with grantees selected through a rigorous two-stage peer-review process involving 100 experts in aging biology and geroscience. 

Dr Berenice Benayoun, an HF-GRO grant recipient at the University of Southern California, stated: “I am extremely honored and excited that Hevolution selected our project for funding. This is a project close to my heart, which aims at understanding why and how the female and male innate immune aging differs. 

“This funding will support us as we start laying the foundation for a lasting improvement of women’s health throughout aging.” 

To date, Hevolution has committed approximately $250 million to transform the healthy aging sector, including the $40 million for specialised research and development in healthspan science recently announced at Hevolution’s Global Healthspan Summit. 

Hevolution is ramping up its investments to enable healthier aging for all and is now the second largest funder of aging biology research worldwide.  

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