Founders Dr Euan Allen, Dr Alasdair Price, and Dr Ben Hunt at Siloton’s lab in Bristol [Photo: Siloton]

QUANTUM TECHNOLOGIES are being used to create powerful computers, new sensors and uncrackable cryptography – but can also help inspire solutions to crippling medical conditions. Take macular degeneration, a debilitating age-related condition where eyesight gradually fades and can lead to blindness.

“By the time you’re age 60, you have a one in four chance of getting this disease,” said Dr Euan Allen, chief technology officer of Siloton, a British medical-imaging company that grew out a QTEC program, an incubator for innovators for quantum technologies.

Allen was speaking at a Sydney Quantum Academy’s Quantum Innovators Network event ‘Quantum Skills in MedTech’ on 7 September 2023 held at The Quantum Terminal, an innovation hub located at Central Station.

Quantum techniques

Siloton, whose founders arose from the University of Bristol’s renowned quantum photonics group, was founded in 2020. The company has used photonic integrated circuits to create a portable imaging system (similar to VR goggles) that can monitor the progression of eye diseases.

Prof Peter Turner, SQA’s CEO (left), leads a discussion with Siloton co-founder Dr Ewan Allen [Photo: Wilson da Silva/SQA]

“In macular degeneration, fluid builds up in the retina – the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye – leading to damage of cells in the macula, the area that is key for the sharp and central area of vision. “Often the first sign for a patient that fluid is present, and they need treatment is that they notice a change in vision,” said Allen. “This is often already too late to prevent some permanent sight loss.”

The condition is irreversible, and the only treatment is an injection into the eye to remove the fluid. “So, it’s really critical to understand when that fluid is building up so that the affected person can get treatment, so they don’t lose sight,” he added.

Bulky and expensive

But the only way to detect fluid build-up in the eyes is to scan them using optical coherence tomography (OCT), an imaging technique that uses low-coherence light at micrometre-resolution to create three-dimensional images. These are bulky and expensive, hence few in number and in high demand at ophthalmology and optometry clinics.

“They about 40 kilos that needed technician to operate … and they can cost anywhere between £40,000 to £120,000 plus depending on the specifications,” Allen added. “And the scans need to be done regularly to pick up the condition. Because there’s so much demand, people are not a scanned as often as they may need.”

Two of Siloton’s founders – Allen and Alasdair Price – had completed their PhDs at the University of Bristol experimenting with photonic integrated circuits. These are microchips that shuffle photons around so they can be used to detect, generate, transport and processes light – similar to the way electrons are manipulated on a computer chip.

And the duo realised they could apply the skills they learned manipulating quantum technologies to the problem of macular degeneration.

Shrunk to a single chip

“We took the bulk optics in those bigger machines – which use either optical fibres, or lenses and mirrors – and shrank them,” Allen said. “We put 80% of the optics of an optical coherence tomograph system onto a single chip.”

Because photonic chips are made in wafers similar to semiconductor chips, they are easy to scale up for mass manufacturing, are robust and cheap to make, he said. “It’s all sits in a single block of material,” Allen said. “So, we can shrink the bulky equipment into just a headset.

Siloton’s prototype portable imaging system for diagnosing macular degeneration [Photo: Siloton]

“We’re calling this a personal eye scanning unit, where the main use-case is that patients can take them home with them and self-monitor as often as they want. We are therefore catching that exact transition of when you need treatment and doing so without requiring the patient to visit clinic.”

Siloton has received large grants and raised approximately £500,000 in private capital to develop its technology. It has three patents filed, and its first chip is capable of detecting retinal structures not too dissimilar from imagery collected by more expensive systems. “We’ve also developed various software packages to assist the clinician in making a diagnosis,” Allen added.

Range of other diseases

Allen said the hope is that eventually they have a standalone device that can identify simple cases automatically. And there’s potential to use the technology to diagnose a range of other diseases.

“It’s a pretty unique area of the body – it’s the only place where you can directly image blood vessels without intervention, and there’s a huge amount blood supply at the back of the eye and even a bit of brain tissue” Allen said. “Things like Parkinson’s or dementia might be diagnosed, and you may be able to detect signs of kidney or cardiovascular disease before symptoms actually manifest themselves.”

The presentation and ensuing audience discussion was chaired Prof Peter Turner, SQA’s CEO, with Allen attending via a high-resolution conference link from Bristol. The event attracted academics, entrepreneurs, and government representatives who afterwards networked over canapés and refreshments.

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Watch the video of the ‘Quantum Skills in MedTech’ Quantum Innovators Network event held on on 7 September 2023 below.