For a long time after Mary Smith hit her head, she was not able to function. Test after test came back normal, so her doctors ruled out the concussion, but she knew something was wrong. Finally, when she took a test with a novel EyeBOX device, recently approved by the FDA, she learned she indeed had been dealing with the aftermath of a concussion.
“I felt like even my husband and doctors thought I was faking it or crazy,” recalls Smith, who preferred not to disclose her real name. “When I took the EyeBOX test it showed that my eyes were not moving together and my BOX score was abnormal.” To her diagnosticians, scientists at the Minneapolis-based company Oculogica who developed the EyeBOX, these markers were concussion signs. “I cried knowing that finally someone could figure out what was wrong with me and help me get better,” she says.
Concussion affects around 42 million people worldwide. While it’s increasingly common in the news because of sports injuries, anything that causes damage to the head, from a fall to a car accident, can result in a concussion. The sudden blow or jolt can disrupt the normal way the brain works. In the immediate aftermath, people may suffer from headaches, lose consciousness and experience dizziness, confusion and vomiting. Some recover but others have side effects that can last for years, particularly affecting memory and concentration.
There is no simple standard-of-care test to confirm a concussion or rule it out. Neither do they appear on MRI and CT scans. Instead, medical professionals use more indirect approaches that test symptoms of concussions, such as assessments of patients’ learning and memory skills, ability to concentrate and problem solving. They also look at balance and coordination. Most tests are in the form of questionnaires or symptom checklists. Consequently, they have limitations, can be biased and may miss a concussion or produce a false positive. Some people suspected of having a concussion may ordinarily have difficulties with literary and problem-solving tests because of language challenges or education levels.
Another problem with current tests is that patients, particularly soldiers who want to return to combat and athletes who would like to keep competing, could try and hide their symptoms to avoid being diagnosed with a brain injury. Trauma physicians who work with concussion patients have the need for a tool that is more objective and consistent.
“This type of assessment doesn’t rely on the patient's education level, willingness to follow instructions or cooperation. You can’t game this.” -- Uzma Samadani, founder of Oculogica
“The importance of having an objective measurement tool for the diagnosis of concussion is of great importance,” says Douglas Powell, associate professor of biomechanics at the University of Memphis, with research interests in sports injury and concussion. “While there are a number of promising systems or metrics, we have yet to develop a system that is portable, accessible and objective for use on the sideline and in the clinic. The EyeBOX may be able to address these issues, though time will be the ultimate test of performance.”
The EyeBOX as a window inside the brain
Using eye movements to diagnose a concussion has emerged as a promising technique since around 2010. Oculogica combined eye movements with AI to develop the EyeBOX to develop an unbiased objective diagnostic tool.
“What’s so great about this type of assessment is it doesn’t rely on the patient's education level, willingness to follow instructions or cooperation,” says Uzma Samadani, a neurosurgeon and brain injury researcher at the University of Minnesota, who founded Oculogica. “You can’t game this. It assesses functions that are prompted by your brain.”
In 2010, Samadani was working on a clinical trial to improve the outcome of brain injuries. The team needed some way to measure if seriously brain injured patients were improving. One thing patients could do was watch TV. So Samadani designed and patented an AI-based algorithm that tracks the relationship between eye movement and concussion.
The EyeBOX test requires patients to watch movie or music clips for 220 seconds. An eye tracking camera records subconscious eye movements, tracking eye positions 500 times per seconds as patients watch the video. It collects over 100,000 data points. The device then uses AI to assess whether there’s any disruptions from the normal way the eyes move.
Cranial nerves are responsible for transmitting information between the brain and the body. Many are involved in eye movement. Pressure caused by a concussion can affect how these nerves work. So tracking how the eyes move can indicate if there’s anything wrong with the cranial nerves and where the problem lies.
If someone is healthy, their eyes should be able to focus on an object, follow movement and both eyes should be coordinated with each other. The EyeBox can detect abnormalities. For example, if a patient’s eyes are coordinated but they are not moving as they should, that indicates issues in the central brain stem, whilst only one eye moving abnormally suggests that a particular nerve section is affected.
Uzma Samadani with the EyeBOX device
“The EyeBOX is a monitor for cranial nerves,” says Samadani. “Essentially it’s a form of digital neurological exam. “Several other eye-tracking techniques already exist, but they rely on subjective self-reported symptoms. Many also require a baseline, a measure of how patients reacted when they were healthy, which often isn’t available.
VOMS (Vestibular Ocular Motor Screen) is one of the most accurate diagnostic tests used in clinics in combination with other tests, but it is subjective. It involves a therapist getting patients to move their head or eyes as they focus or follow a particular object. Patients then report their symptoms.
The King-Devick test measures how fast patients can read numbers and compares it to a baseline. Since it is mainly used for athletes, the initial test is completed before the season starts. But participants can manipulate it. It also cannot be used in emergency rooms because the majority of patients wouldn’t have prior baseline tests.
Unlike these tests, EyeBOX doesn’t use a baseline and is objective because it doesn’t rely on patients’ answers. “It shows great promise,” says Thomas Wilcockson, a senior lecturer of psychology in Loughborough University, who is an expert in using eye tracking techniques in neurological disorders. “Baseline testing of eye movements is not always possible. Alternative measures of concussion currently in development, including work with VR headsets, seem to currently require it. Therefore the EyeBOX may have an advantage.”
A technology that’s still evolving
In their last clinical trial, Oculogica used the EyeBOX to test 46 patients who had concussion and 236 patients who did not. The sensitivity of the EyeBOX, or the probability of it correctly identifying the patient’s concussion, was 80.4 percent. Meanwhile, the test accurately ruled out a concussion in 66.1 percent of cases. This is known as its specificity score.
While the team is working on improving the numbers, experts who treat concussion patients find the device promising. “I strongly support their use of eye tracking for diagnostic decision making,” says Douglas Powell. “But for diagnostic tests, we would prefer at least one of the sensitivity or specificity values to be greater than 90 percent. Powell compares EyeBOX with the Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test, which has sensitivity and specificity values of 73 and 78 percent, respectively. The VOMS also has shown greater accuracy than the EyeBOX, at least for now. Still, EyeBOX is competitive with the best diagnostic testing available for concussion and Powell hopes that its detection prowess will improve. “I anticipate that the algorithms being used by Oculogica will be under continuous revision and expect the results will improve within the next several years.”
“The color of your skin can have a huge impact in how quickly you are triaged and managed for brain injury. People of color have significantly worse outcomes after traumatic brain injury than people who are white.” -- Uzma Samadani, founder of Oculogica
Powell thinks the EyeBOX could be an important complement to other concussion assessments.
“The Oculogica product is a viable diagnostic tool that supports clinical decision making. However, concussion is an injury that can present with a wide array of symptoms, and the use of technology such as the Oculogica should always be a supplement to patient interaction.”
Ioannis Mavroudis, a consultant neurologist at Leeds Teaching Hospital, agrees that the EyeBOX has promise, but cautions that concussions are too complex to rely on the device alone. For example, not all concussions affect how eyes move. “I believe that it can definitely help, however not all concussions show changes in eye movements. I believe that if this could be combined with a cognitive assessment the results would be impressive.”
The Oculogica team submitted their clinical data for FDA approval and received it in 2018. Now, they’re working to bring the test to the commercial market and using the device clinically to help diagnose concussions for clients. They also want to look at other areas of brain health in the next few years. Samadani believes that the EyeBOX could possibly be used to detect diseases like multiple sclerosis or other neurological conditions. “It’s a completely new way of figuring out what someone’s neurological exam is and we’re only beginning to realize the potential,” says Samadani.
One of Samadani’s biggest aspirations is to help reduce inequalities in healthcare because of skin color and other factors like money or language barriers. From that perspective, the EyeBOX’s greatest potential could be in emergency rooms. It can help diagnose concussions in addition to the questionnaires, assessments and symptom checklists, currently used in the emergency departments. Unlike these more subjective tests, EyeBOX can produce an objective analysis of brain injury through AI when patients are admitted and assessed, unrelated to their socioeconomic status, education, or language abilities. Studies suggest that there are racial disparities in how patients with brain injuries are treated, such as how quickly they're assessed and get a treatment plan.
“The color of your skin can have a huge impact in how quickly you are triaged and managed for brain injury,” says Samadani. “As a result of that, people of color have significantly worse outcomes after traumatic brain injury than people who are white. The EyeBOX has the potential to reduce inequalities,” she explains.
“If you had a digital neurological tool that you could screen and triage patients on admission to the emergency department you would potentially be able to make sure that everybody got the same standard of care,” says Samadani. “My goal is to change the way brain injury is diagnosed and defined.”
A skin patch to treat peanut allergies teaches the body to tolerate the nuts
Ever since he was a baby, Sharon Wong’s son Brandon suffered from rashes, prolonged respiratory issues and vomiting. In 2006, as a young child, he was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy.
"My son had a history of reacting to traces of peanuts in the air or in food,” says Wong, a food allergy advocate who runs a blog focusing on nut free recipes, cooking techniques and food allergy awareness. “Any participation in school activities, social events, or travel with his peanut allergy required a lot of preparation.”
Peanut allergies affect around a million children in the U.S. Most never outgrow the condition. The problem occurs when the immune system mistakenly views the proteins in peanuts as a threat and releases chemicals to counteract it. This can lead to digestive problems, hives and shortness of breath. For some, like Wong’s son, even exposure to trace amounts of peanuts could be life threatening. They go into anaphylactic shock and need to take a shot of adrenaline as soon as possible.
Typically, people with peanut allergies try to completely avoid them and carry an adrenaline autoinjector like an EpiPen in case of emergencies. This constant vigilance is very stressful, particularly for parents with young children.
“The search for a peanut allergy ‘cure’ has been a vigorous one,” says Claudia Gray, a pediatrician and allergist at Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. The closest thing to a solution so far, she says, is the process of desensitization, which exposes the patient to gradually increasing doses of peanut allergen to build up a tolerance. The most common type of desensitization is oral immunotherapy, where patients ingest small quantities of peanut powder. It has been effective but there is a risk of anaphylaxis since it involves swallowing the allergen.
"By the end of the trial, my son tolerated approximately 1.5 peanuts," Sharon Wong says.
DBV Technologies, a company based in Montrouge, France has created a skin patch to address this problem. The Viaskin Patch contains a much lower amount of peanut allergen than oral immunotherapy and delivers it through the skin to slowly increase tolerance. This decreases the risk of anaphylaxis.
Wong heard about the peanut patch and wanted her son to take part in an early phase 2 trial for 4-to-11-year-olds.
“We felt that participating in DBV’s peanut patch trial would give him the best chance at desensitization or at least increase his tolerance from a speck of peanut to a peanut,” Wong says. “The daily routine was quite simple, remove the old patch and then apply a new one. By the end of the trial, he tolerated approximately 1.5 peanuts.”
How it works
For DBV Technologies, it all began when pediatric gastroenterologist Pierre-Henri Benhamou teamed up with fellow professor of gastroenterology Christopher Dupont and his brother, engineer Bertrand Dupont. Together they created a more effective skin patch to detect when babies have allergies to cow's milk. Then they realized that the patch could actually be used to treat allergies by promoting tolerance. They decided to focus on peanut allergies first as the more dangerous.
The Viaskin patch utilizes the fact that the skin can promote tolerance to external stimuli. The skin is the body’s first defense. Controlling the extent of the immune response is crucial for the skin. So it has defense mechanisms against external stimuli and can promote tolerance.
The patch consists of an adhesive foam ring with a plastic film on top. A small amount of peanut protein is placed in the center. The adhesive ring is attached to the back of the patient's body. The peanut protein sits above the skin but does not directly touch it. As the patient sweats, water droplets on the inside of the film dissolve the peanut protein, which is then absorbed into the skin.
The peanut protein is then captured by skin cells called Langerhans cells. They play an important role in getting the immune system to tolerate certain external stimuli. Langerhans cells take the peanut protein to lymph nodes which activate T regulatory cells. T regulatory cells suppress the allergic response.
A different patch is applied to the skin every day to increase tolerance. It’s both easy to use and convenient.
“The DBV approach uses much smaller amounts than oral immunotherapy and works through the skin significantly reducing the risk of allergic reactions,” says Edwin H. Kim, the division chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the University of North Carolina, U.S., and one of the principal investigators of Viaskin’s clinical trials. “By not going through the mouth, the patch also avoids the taste and texture issues. Finally, the ability to apply a patch and immediately go about your day may be very attractive to very busy patients and families.”
Brandon Wong displaying origami figures he folded at an Origami Convention in 2022
Results from DBV's phase 3 trial in children ages 1 to 3 show its potential. For a positive result, patients who could not tolerate 10 milligrams or less of peanut protein had to be able to manage 300 mg or more after 12 months. Toddlers who could already tolerate more than 10 mg needed to be able to manage 1000 mg or more. In the end, 67 percent of subjects using the Viaskin patch met the target as compared to 33 percent of patients taking the placebo dose.
“The Viaskin peanut patch has been studied in several clinical trials to date with promising results,” says Suzanne M. Barshow, assistant professor of medicine in allergy and asthma research at Stanford University School of Medicine in the U.S. “The data shows that it is safe and well-tolerated. Compared to oral immunotherapy, treatment with the patch results in fewer side effects but appears to be less effective in achieving desensitization.”
The primary reason the patch is less potent is that oral immunotherapy uses a larger amount of the allergen. Additionally, absorption of the peanut protein into the skin could be erratic.
Gray also highlights that there is some tradeoff between risk and efficacy.
“The peanut patch is an exciting advance but not as effective as the oral route,” Gray says. “For those patients who are very sensitive to orally ingested peanut in oral immunotherapy or have an aversion to oral peanut, it has a use. So, essentially, the form of immunotherapy will have to be tailored to each patient.” Having different forms such as the Viaskin patch which is applied to the skin or pills that patients can swallow or dissolve under the tongue is helpful.
The hope is that the patch’s efficacy will increase over time. The team is currently running a follow-up trial, where the same patients continue using the patch.
“It is a very important study to show whether the benefit achieved after 12 months on the patch stays stable or hopefully continues to grow with longer duration,” says Kim, who is an investigator in this follow-up trial.
"My son now attends university in Massachusetts, lives on-campus, and eats dorm food. He has so much more freedom," Wong says.
The team is further ahead in the phase 3 follow-up trial for 4-to-11-year-olds. The initial phase 3 trial was not as successful as the trial for kids between one and three. The patch enabled patients to tolerate more peanuts but there was not a significant enough difference compared to the placebo group to be definitive. The follow-up trial showed greater potency. It suggests that the longer patients are on the patch, the stronger its effects.
They’re also testing if making the patch bigger, changing the shape and extending the minimum time it’s worn can improve its benefits in a trial for a new group of 4-to-11 year-olds.
DBV Technologies is using the skin patch to treat cow’s milk allergies in children ages 1 to 17. They’re currently in phase 2 trials.
As for the peanut allergy trials in toddlers, the hope is to see more efficacy soon.
For Wong’s son who took part in the earlier phase 2 trial for 4-to-11-year-olds, the patch has transformed his life.
“My son continues to maintain his peanut tolerance and is not affected by peanut dust in the air or cross-contact,” Wong says. ”He attends university in Massachusetts, lives on-campus, and eats dorm food. He still carries an EpiPen but has so much more freedom than before his clinical trial. We will always be grateful.”
Can a non-invasive magnetic helmet treat brain cancer?
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects, and a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
"This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon, but it is very preliminary,” Baskin says.
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called Reactive Oxygen Species, or ROS. In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and it's neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably, so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon, but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
This article first appeared on Leaps.org on January 21, 2022.