A smartphone app that monitors personal photos can spot eye diseases more than a year before doctors do, according to a new report published today in the journal Science Advances.
Using machine learning, the app searches casual portraits for signs of leukocoria: the appearance of a white reflection in the pupil of the eye. Leukocoria, or “white eye,” looks similar to red eye—that creepy red reflection in the eye that often appears with flash photography. But a red reflection is actually a sign of a healthy eye. A white reflection can be a sign of a problem.
White eye can indicate retinoblastoma, a type of childhood cancer of the retina, or a handful of other eye disorders, including retinopathy of prematurity, cataracts, or Coats Disease. Catching these disorders early can save an eye, or a life.
“With retinoblastoma, every month counts,” says Bryan Shaw, an associate professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Tumors grow rapidly and when you start seeing the white eye, you have about six months to a year before the tumor starts to break up and metastasize down the optic nerve to the brain and kills you.”