SPOKANE, Wash. — If you showed up at an emergency room with a heart attack, you’d expect to receive some diagnostic tests like pulse, blood pressure and an EKG. You’d be surprised if medical professionals based their assessment only on how you looked, or how they perceived your behavior that day.
Yet, that is exactly how autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed. Dr. Georgina Lynch, an assistant professor at Washington State University in Spokane, Wash., says autism is assessed with too limited a set of tools, focusing only on sociability and behavior markers that can often be perceived subjectively by healthcare providers.
She started Appiture Biotechnologies to bring a new objective autism test to the healthcare market. Researchers have long hoped that a genetic marker or blood test would offer an objective clue to diagnosing autism. Instead, Dr. Lynch’s approach is based on what she finds to be a unique reaction to light in the pupils of people on the autism spectrum.
“When we think of autism as just a behavioral or mental health disorder, that’s the first mistake,” she said. “We need to think about it as a biological condition.”
Dr. Lynch worked as a speech pathologist in Central Valley School District in Spokane Valley, Wash., for 12 years. During that time, she specialized in setting up programs to help the increasing numbers of autistic children. She noticed many had the appearance of having big eyes, but upon closer inspection, it’s because their pupils were dilated, even in bright light.
While her daily work dealt with brain stem issues like limited speech and challenges swallowing that are common with kids on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), she realized the pupils might be showing her another issue unique to the spectrum.
While doing her masters and doctoral degrees at Eastern Washington University and Washington State University, respectively, she explored her hunch. She found that the pupillary light reflex in people with ASD were atypical compared to people without ASD. This could be the “holy grail” as she calls it, an objective marker for ASD.
Lynch believes the approach will complement but not replace the behavioral assessments that are more subjective and therefore vary from practitioner to practitioner.
She approached the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute at the main campus of WSU in Pullman, Wash., to explore how they could partner to make a product that they could get into the hands of primary care physicians to test a patient’s reaction to light stimulus. There she met Lars Neuenschwander who took on the challenge along with a fellow senior in the program, TJ Goble.
Lynch and Neuenschwander co-founded Appiture last year to bring this testing capability to market through development of a handheld device, and related software. At first they explored using mobile phones, since those devices already contain a camera, a tool that can be used to measure the pupil’s light reaction. But given the ever-evolving software and hardware of the competitive phone market, they chose instead to develop a unique device through a “garage approach to prototyping” including using 3D printers.
The team expects a development period of three years including clinical tests and FDA Level One device approval.
Learn more about the project in a new episode of the Geekwire Health Tech Podcast. Listen above or subscribe in your favorite podcast app.