Kiwi tech wins ASCRS challenge

A new, potentially revolutionary device to treat corneal infections, co-developed by Auckland-based consultant ophthalmologist Dr Simon Dean, has won the prestigious, international American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS) 2020 Winning Pitch Challenge.


Now in its fourth year, the challenge seeks to encourage and reward innovative ophthalmic solutions and connect innovators with investors to accelerate prototype development to improve patient care.


Dr Dean’s award-winning Photon UVC Device, co-developed with Professor Sunil Shah, a corneal consultant ophthalmologist at the UK’s Birmingham & Midland Eye Centre, uses UVC to treat infectious keratitis. UVC is ultraviolet light with wavelengths between 200-280nm, commonly used for disinfection.


“There is no known microbial resistance to UVC light,” said Dr Dean. “Preliminary studies are promising, suggesting both safety and efficacy at very low doses. A lot more research needs to be done but this may be perfect for safe, empiric, first-line treatment for all corneal infections - bacterial, viral, and fungal.”


The new UVC corneal treatment device emerged from work Prof Shah and Dr Dean were doing into crosslinking, which uses ultraviolet light, over a decade ago. “There were early reports that crosslinking could kill bacteria, but back then it was 30 minutes soak with riboflavin photo-activator and 30 minutes exposure, whereas I could get the same result on agar plates at home, in one second with the new UVC LEDs. Proper lab studies were then conducted but this is how these things start.”


The idea for the new device was developed further under the watchful eye of Associate Professor Jennifer Craig, head of the Ocular Surface Laboratory in the Department of Ophthalmology at Auckland University and Dr Dean’s wife, and co-supervisor Dr Sanjay Marasini who was awarded his PhD for research in this area.


Following early efficacy and safety trials into the power of UVC, a protype device was developed which is now in laboratory trials, said Dr Dean. “Being an inexpensive device, the potential for use in areas lacking adequate ophthalmic supplies is compelling. Once developed and functioning, it may help reduce the impact of corneal infections both in the developed world, as a first line treatment and in combination with traditional drop therapy, but also in the developing world where appropriate antibiotic drops may be difficult to source.”


Dr Dean and Prof Shah have set up a company, Photon Therapeutics, to help propel the device to market. “All research to date has been under the direction of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at the University of Auckland to ensure academic rigour. A lot of investment in time and money has gone into this venture but it looks like it might very well be successful with this latest vote of confidence from ASCRS.


“The win means we are now much more likely to have an accelerated pathway to production; it helps attract investors and really kick starts momentum from prototyping to manufacture.”


Many times, the people with the best ideas are the ones closest to the work, said Dr Vance Thompson, co-director of the Winning Pitch Challenge. “We are proud of our colleagues who have ideas and need a little help getting their idea off the ground. That's what the Winning Pitch Challenge is all about."


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