Dr. David Huang: Inventor of Optical Coherence Tomography, the Technology that Saves Sight and Billions of Dollars

Dr. David Huang: Inventor of Optical Coherence Tomography, the Technology that Saves Sight and Billions of Dollars

Groundbreaking Eye Imaging Technology Inventor Dr. David Huang to Receive Lasker-DeBakey Award

It’s not everyone who can say they’ve prevented an untold number of people from going blind and saved the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars annually to boot.

Dr. David Huang, a medical researcher at Oregon Health & Science University’s Casey Eye Institute, is one of them. He and two partners in the early 1990s invented what has become known as “optical coherence tomography,” a type of imaging technology that Huang described as “ultrasound for the eye.”

The technology can detect early signs of problems in the eye, such as those caused by glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy. If caught early, doctors can save the sight of patients.

Huang and his two partners in the effort – James Fujimoto and Eric Swanson – will be awarded this year’s prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for developing the groundbreaking technology.

“The ability to painlessly generate high-resolution cross-sectional images of the eye’s internal architecture in real time and without physical contact was unprecedented,” Lasker officials said. “OCT revolutionized ophthalmology by allowing doctors to rapidly detect and then treat diseases of the retina that impair vision, thereby saving the eyesight of millions.”

The Laskers, as they’ve become known, have been awarded annually since 1945 to honor advances in medical research.

Huang was a new researcher at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab in 1990 when he first became interested in imaging. His faculty advisor, Fujimoto, was conducting research on high-speed lasers and their potential use in medical care.

It was exciting and at times daunting. Huang was convinced that there was a need for a smaller, less invasive, more precise imaging technology – like an MRI without the claustrophobia, or an ultrasound without the educated guessing. But were they right? Had they bet on the right technology?

“There’s no roadmap for doing something totally new,” Huang said.

Fujimoto built an early system in the mid-1980s.

“It worked, but it did not work very well,” Huang said. “The system was not strong enough. And the laser was cumbersome.”

They turned to Swanson, another MIT researcher, to design and build a machine that was smaller, lighter, but still offered all the bells and whistles their technology offered.

“It was incredible. Eric is so smart. And he had access to machines I didn’t know existed,” Huang said.

Swanson came back with a machine the size of a laptop computer.

They went to market with their first commercial system in 1994. Lasker award officials said by “stitching together optics, telecommunications engineering, and medicine, Fujimoto, Huang, and Swanson translated fundamental research discoveries into a technology that has benefited multitudes of people.”

Neighborhood eye doctors were understandably cautious. Only time and positive reviews in academic journals would make the industry more receptive.

Today, OCT is broadly accepted in the medical world and its use is expanding. It is being used to detect heart problems and the amyloid plaques found in the brains of people with dementia.

“This is a really good time for Lasker to recognize this technology. Because we’re on the cusp of a whole host of new uses,” Huang said.

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The technology has resulted in big savings. OCT can detect problems — and the lack of problems. In other words, the screening can determine when patients don’t need the expensive therapies now available. He figures the technology is saving Medicare and Medicaid $1 billion a year.

When it comes to money, Huang is cagey when asked how much he has made on OCT. He laughs that while he got a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering as well as an MD and a doctorate, he declined to get an MBA.

Huang moved west in 2010 and joined Oregon Health & Science University. He serves as associate director and director of research at OHSU’s Casey Eye Institute. He and a small team at Casey continue to refine the OCT imaging technology. He serves as a professor of biomedical engineering and ophthalmology. He is running two start-up companies that are not in the OCT niche. And he sees patients one day a week.

He’s thrilled to be receiving the Lasker and that he’s being recognized for his role in developing this “beautiful and elegant imaging system that saves vision and lives.”

— Jeff Manning; jmanning@oregonian.com


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