Northeastern Grad Creates Device That Promises to Change Eye Disorder Diagnosis

Analyzing eye fluid helps direct future treatment in only 20 minutes.


Walsh’s device. Photo provided

David Walsh knew there had to be a better way.

After watching his grandmother, who suffers from age-related macular degeneration, undergo painful treatments that neither she nor her doctor knew to be effective, Walsh, a graduate student at Northeastern University, took matters into his own hands and developed a device that could change the way patients like his grandmother go through diagnosis.

“It’s a medical device that measures disease biomarkers [called VEGF] within the fluid in your eye,” Walsh explains. “From less than a droplet of fluid from the eye, we can do an analysis to determine if treatments are effective in preventing blood vessel growth within your eye [the main characteristic of eye disorders like age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy].”

The current treatment process for people with age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy—which, together, are the leading cause of blindness in the Western world—involves injecting a drug directly into the eye every four to six weeks. The process is painful and expensive, but perhaps worst of all is the uncertainty associated with it. “[The doctors] don’t really know what kind of dosing people need, and there’s no real way to tell if the drug is working other than looking at it after quite a few months,” Walsh says. “There’s also a lot of patients that don’t really respond to the drug as well.”

That’s why Walsh created his device, which was developed with the help of a grant awarded to Shashi Murthy, Walsh’s advisor at Northeastern. The device consists of two plastic disks infused with several solutions of different densities, including the eye fluid. Walsh then spins the device, causing the solutions to mix. Once that’s done, the device will light up in the presence of VEGF, allowing clinicians to monitor biomarker levels and, thus, blood vessel growth. The test takes only 20 minutes, which could save patients from undergoing procedures only to find later that the dosing was off or the drug wasn’t effective for them in the first place.

The device is currently being manufactured by a startup called Sandstone Diagnostics, which was founded by Walsh’s former co-workers. Their hope is that it could be on the market in just two to four years. First, Walsh says, they’ll be looking to perform clinical studies to prove its efficacy.

Though Walsh’s invention is specific to eye disorders, the principle behind it has even further-reaching promise. “It can be applied to pretty much anything, absolutely,” Walsh says of using fluids for accurate, fast diagnosis. “You can look for any kind of biomarker in any type of biological fluid. Blood, saliva, eye fluid, or cerebral spinal fluid, it’s all the same.”

Similar technologies are currently used in on-the-spot tests for HIV and high cholesterol, and Walsh is working on a device that would study biomarkers in cerebral spinal fluid to illuminate drug options for treating PTSD.

Walsh says that he hopes this kind of application can be used to improve personalization in medicine, a cause close to his heart since his father died from cancer that was misdiagnosed as acid reflux. “I think making sure people are taking the right drug, and that the drugs are doing the right thing, is just incredibly important,” Walsh says. “There really needs to be a feedback put it in, so that doctors can take another look sooner, before it’s too late.”