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$20M Grant Funds Portable Eye-Scanning Tech

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The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) has awarded $20 million to Chao Zhou, a professor of biomedical engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, to support the development of a portable OCT system. The solution could offer advanced eye screenings to many more patients at lower costs. Additionally, the technology could be used in additional applications, including cardiology, dermatology, dentistry, endoscopy, and urology.

Zhou plans to build the portable system using a design based on PICs and custom-designed electronic integrated circuits (ICs). This, he said, will simplify the assembly process and lower production costs, making OCT more accessible to a wider range of facilities and patients.

“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,” Zhou said.
Chao Zhou, a professor of biomedical engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis will lead work to develop a portable OCT scanner which provides greater imaging capability and faster acquisition speed compared with current OCT scanning systems. Courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis.
Chao Zhou, a professor of biomedical engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, will lead work to develop a portable OCT scanner that provides greater imaging capability and faster acquisition speed compared with current OCT scanning systems. Courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis. 
Zhou’s group previously invented the space-division multiplexing OCT (SDM-OCT) technique, which takes multiple high-definition OCT images simultaneously with a single detector and is at least 10× faster than existing OCT scanners. The solution leads to fewer opportunities for errors from patient movement. However, these systems required extensive time and labor to assemble components for each channel, which limited their broad use.


With the ARPA-H funding, Zhou and collaborators will assemble the components in a photonic chip using advancements in CMOS processes that have benefitted the semiconductor industry. This will streamline manufacturing and lower costs. Once functioning, the collaborators will conduct studies using the device on adult and pediatric patients.

The proposed system is >50× faster than existing state-of-the-art commercial OCT systems at a fraction of the cost, the researchers said. By optimizing and integrating the photonic and electronic circuits, the researchers can create an integrated image acquisition and signal processing engine with benefits that extend into other areas of health care, such as glucose sensing and portable skin imagers.

The full project is intended to span five years and involve researchers from multiple institutions. At the conclusion of the project, the team expects to have developed photonic and electronic chips and portable PIC-OCT prototypes specifically for ophthalmic imaging. The team also plans to work with commercial foundries to fabricate the photonic and electronic integrated circuits. Mass production, Zhou said, would significantly reduce manufacturing costs.

Published: February 2024
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