A University of Auckland bio engineer has received $1 million in funding to follow his dream of curing the disease that left his father blind for 60 years.
Dr Ehsan Vaghefi received the funding from the 2018 round of the Endeavour Fund, New Zealand's largest contestable research fund, for a laser-based imaging device called MyIScope that will be capable of screening for early signs of blindness.
MyIScope was designed to detect eye diseases such as cataracts, pathological myopia and glaucoma in children. Vaghefi believed a device like this would have saved his father from going blind when he was a child.
"My father, Majid Vaghefi, went blind when he was only 9 years old, due to an undetected eye disease, called juvenile glaucoma. Sixty years ago, they did not have the technology to screen and diagnose this condition, and blindness was unavoidable for the children who suffered from this disease."
Vaghefi said despite his father's resistance to succumb to his disability, growing up with a blind parent came with its challenges.
"Growing up, I've always thought this is not fair, not on the person who has the blindness and not on the person who has to go an extra mile to care for them.
"For me it was every day holding my dad's hand and not him guiding me but me guiding him around. You have to watch for every step, if there is a stair, if there is something on the floor, you're the one in charge."
In spite of these troubles, Vaghefi said both he and his father have accepted that his disability will help prevent other children from having the same fate.
"I don't regret that time and I think that for the first time in his life, my father feels appreciative for his blindness because through that it has changed the course of my life and it has made me do something that could actually help the other blind children."
Vaghefi said his team came up with the MyIScope idea after seeing how the current model of eye health care used to diagnose and treat vision-threatening disease in New Zealand was expensive and was concentrated around eye care clinics or private optometry practices.
He believed MylScope would be a more accessible and affordable option, costing $60,000 less than alternative devices and being made so it could be operated by trained nurses instead of just optometrists.
In a study done by the university on a South Auckland primary school, more than 30 per cent of mostly Māori and Pasifika children had not received any vision screening and more than 15 per cent were classified as having reduced vision.
Vaghefi said he planned to work with Māori healthcare organisations to bring his device to lower socio-economic communities.
"If this device is cheap enough to manufacture, I will give it away, starting with our Māori partners and then to others. Our device can be operated by a trained nurse and our partners can take it to low decile schools and those communities that are difficult to reach. That is the definition of 'democratisation of healthcare' to me"
Pre-clinical trials will start early next year with hopes that the device will make its way to the public by 2020. Vaghefi said while he hopes his device succeeds, his dream was to give children the childhood they deserved.
"Even if I just save one child from going blind, that will give meaning to my life. That will be the badge that I will carry proudly for the rest of my life."