UC Berkeley grad student, professor, alum join forces in international public service project.
A UC Berkeley graduate student in optometry, one of her professors and a Berkeley alumnus have joined forces to build a long-distance diagnostic project that has the potential to keep a large number of people in crisis-torn Libya from going blind.
The public service project involves training Libyan doctors to take detailed digital photographs inside patients’ eyes, of their retinas, as part of routine health care and put the images online for remote diagnosis of damage caused by diabetes before it’s too late. Too often, diabetes-related retinopathy isn’t caught until it causes symptoms, when treatment can no longer save vision.
The first 11 Libyan doctors underwent training for three days in February in Istanbul, in a seminar organized by the Avicenna Group and taught by Berkeley optometry professor Jorge Cuadros. Turkey was chosen as the training site for security reasons and because it is easily accessible from Libya.
If all goes according to plan, many more doctors will be trained over the next year, both in Libya and out — all because of a project that developed rapidly from a seed planted in a Diabetic Health Clinic class in Berkeley’s School of Optometry.
In the class, Cuadros taught students how to analyze photos of diabetic retinopathy as part of EyePACS, the California-based online initiative he co-founded to train people working in diabetes care to screen patients’ vision for remote diagnosis by certified eye doctors.
In his class was third-year optometry student Fatima Elkabti, who knows firsthand the toll that diabetes is taking in Libya, where the disease is rampant but greatly underdiagnosed. Elkabti’s father, a Libyan, has diabetes, as do about half of her many aunts and uncles.
“I walked out of the class and asked Dr. Cuadros, ‘Can we do this in Libya?’ “ Elkabti relates. Do some research, the professor told her.
Elkabti got to work and within an hour found Ethan Chorin, who earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 2000, served in the U.S. diplomatic corps in Libya from 2004 to 2006 and has published a book about the recent Libyan revolution. He founded the not-for-profit Avicenna Group in 2011 with a Libyan-American colleague to catalyze health-related partnerships between Libyan organizations and U.S. universities. Traveling back and forth between Benghazi and Berkeley, he looked for ways to involve Berkeley in Libya’s reconstruction efforts.
“I shot Ethan an email, and within hours we were talking about how to make this happen,” Elkabti says. The Berkeley-Libya retinopathy project was off and running.
Diabetes-related retinopathy is one of the leading causes of blindness in Libya — as well as in the United States and in much of the world. EyePACS has brought retinal screenings to poor and medically underserved areas from California’s Central Valley to Peru, and the Libyan retinopathy project extends the concept to politically unstable and dangerous regions.