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Study: Eye scans can detect kidney health, monitor disease progression

 The retina is the only place where microvascular circulation can be observed. [iStockphoto]

Research indicates that kidney disease progression can be monitored and important information about kidney health can be gathered from eye scans.

This advancement is likely to address the challenge of the condition, which often progresses without symptoms in the early stages.

Experts say that the technology is capable of supporting early diagnosis, as the current screening tests cannot detect the condition unless half of the kidney is lost.

Researchers monitored changes to the retina (the layer of tissue that senses light and sends signals to the brain) using highly magnifiedimages.

They discovered that the images provide a non-invasive and quick means of observing kidney health.

The retina in the eye is the only place where microvascular circulation can be observed- and this flow of blood through the tiniest vessels is often affected by kidney disease.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh looked into the possibility of identifying the progression from 3D retinal images obtained with a device known as optical coherence tomography (OCT).

The team observed OCT images of 86 healthy volunteers and 204 patients with varying stages of kidney disease, including transplant recipients.  

They found that thinner retinas were observed in chronic kidney disease patients as compared to healthy volunteers, correlating with declining kidney function.

Surprisingly, retinal thinning was reversed after successful kidney transplants, while severe cases showed rapid thickening post-surgery.

The research indicates that routine eye exams could support early detection and monitoring, enabling lifestyle modifications to lower health risks as more people become susceptible to kidney disease as a result of illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

By measuring retinal changes indicative of kidney responses to potential treatments, the technology - backed by Heidelberg Engineering’s imaging platform - could also aid in drug development.

In the United Kingdom, chronic kidney disease affects about 7.2 million people and costs the National Health Service (NHS) £7 billion a year. 

Dr Neeraj Dhaun, professor of nephrology at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cardiovascular Science, says, “We hope that this research, which shows that the eye is a useful window into the kidney, will help identify more people with early kidney disease, providing an opportunity to start treatments before it progresses.”

“It also offers potential for new clinical trials and the development of drug treatments for a chronic disease that, so far, has proved extremely difficult to treat.”

Dr Aisling McMahon, Executive Director of Research and Policy at Kidney Research UK says, “Kidney patients often face invasive procedures to monitor their kidney health, often on top of receiving gruelling treatments like dialysis.

“We are continuing to support the team as they investigate whether their approach could also be used to diagnose and intervene in kidney disease earlier.” 

The study was published in Nature Communications, funded by Kidney Research UK and supported by Edinburgh Innovations.


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