Singapore is ramping up its efforts to diagnose and treat glaucoma early, with a $25 million research programme launched on Tuesday to significantly reduce the rate of blindness caused by the disease over the next 10 years.

Some projects that the programme will be funding may include artificial intelligence (AI) software that can be used by ophthalmologists to diagnose patients during a routine eye check, or genetic risk factor testing.
Professor Aung Tin, chief executive of the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) and principal investigator of the programme, said: "Glaucoma worldwide is the leading cause of irreversible blindness and by 2040, more than 110 million people are projected to have glaucoma worldwide."

He added that the number is estimated to increase over time due to the ageing of the world's population.

The five-year-programme, known as Tackling and Reducing Glaucoma Blindness with Emerging Technologies (Target), is helmed by the Singapore Eye Research Institute and funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore.

Glaucoma causes blindness due to a build-up of pressure in the eye which damages the optic nerve that sends visual information to the brain.

Prof Aung said: "We hope that our research can lead to improved patient care and cost savings for healthcare systems, not just in Singapore, but also in the region and beyond."

Target will focus primarily on identifying glaucoma risk factors, improving glaucoma diagnosing capacities and innovating new treatments for it.

One of these projects involves using AI to screen for undiagnosed glaucoma in communities.

According to Singvision Magazine by SNEC, glaucoma affects approximately 10 per cent of Singapore's population. Of this group, up to 50 per cent of glaucoma patients are undiagnosed.

Professor Cheng Ching-Yu, principal clinician scientist at SNEC and leader of the project, said this is due to a lack of obvious symptoms in its early stages and also exacerbated by a lack of simple and sustainable screening models.

He added: "We are hoping that with a simple photo of a retina, artificial intelligence will be able to diagnose glaucoma in a way previously inaccessible to people who are not specialists."

Some examples include bringing this technology to polyclinics, general practitioners and ophthalmologists to increase the range of screening opportunities.

Mr Goh Kim Soon, 61, said he was diagnosed with glaucoma last year only because he goes for regular check-ups by an ophthalmologist.

The programme will be good for the public, he added.

"The programme's focus on early detection will be crucial in helping people to avoid going blind," he said.