Alumni & Friends
Using tinfoil, duct tape and an old camera, an SF State alumnus breaks new ground -- again -- in the world of ophthalmic imaging.
Clad in a white coat and sensible tie, Richard E. Hackel (M.A., '83) poses in front of an otherworldly image. To the untrained eye, it looks like a fiery orange planet, its atmosphere swirling with misty clouds. But this isn't an uncharted planet from a neighboring solar system. It is the well-explored interior of the human eye -- the retina to be exact.
What's striking about the image isn't its resemblance to a celestial body, but the down-to-earth fact that this "photo," the type Hackel creates daily as an ophthalmic photographer, is a composite of dozens of intraocular exposures "stitched" together so seamlessly the final image appears to be a single frame. Not long ago this would have been a rough cut-and-paste affair resembling a collage.
This changed in 1992 when Hackel, a former SF State art and film student with a penchant for creative photography, spent a week photoshopping 90 images together for the cover of an ophthalmology journal he was editing. Not only did it represent the industry's first seamless digital image of a retina, but it also spurred software developers into creating programs that duplicated Hackel's efforts in a fraction of the time.
"Sure, there was a lot of excitement over it," says Hackel, chief of ophthalmic photography at the University of Michigan's Kellogg Eye Center. "The ophthalmologists enjoyed seeing a retinal disease in one piece."
Retina Specialist Dr. Grant Comer agrees. "The composite image was an essential breakthrough. The images we have now provide an extensive view of the retina, allowing us to peer into its periphery."
Having a finely detailed composite is an important distinction to eye doctors, who use these images to diagnose and treat hundreds of diseases, including diabetes, which can -- in severe cases -- lead to blindness. It is to this last disease that Hackel owes his latest breakthrough: a specialized camera that can reveal early signs of the debilitating illness before it strikes a patient. "An ophthalmologist here figured out a certain wavelength of light that can detect cells under stress," explains Hackel, who in addition to being on the medical faculty is also an adjunct professor of art. "He asked me if it was possible to put special filters in the camera to capture early signs of retinal stress. I rigged an old camera using a lot of tinfoil and duct tape, and we spent the next six months making tiny adjustments until we achieved repeatable, accurate measures."
Published in the February issue of Archives of Ophthalmology, the research demonstrates the clinical potential of what many agree is the industry's first metabolic imaging device.
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