Sina Farsiu: Processing an Avalanche of Images

Advances in image processing algorithms strengthen ties between ophthalmology and engineering

Sina Farsiu wants to figure out how to peer into your soul . . . or at least your brain. An expert in designing computer image processing algorithms, Farsiu is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Duke Medicine who recently accepted a primary appointment in the Pratt biomedical engineering department with the hopes of strengthening collaborations across the university.

“When President Bush said he looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and got a sense of his soul, he was actually on to something,” said Farsiu, who has a long history of collaborating with peers in Duke’s engineering school. “The retina is part of the central nervous system, and there is a lot you can learn by looking at it in detail.”

Farsiu’s research focuses on developing computer software and mathematical theory that makes imaging systems better, either by improving resolution or how quickly pictures are snapped. His team also writes algorithms that can autonomously search through the avalanche of data that modern imaging technology produces to find new disease biomarkers or help clinicians make better diagnoses. 

Just a few applications of his work include finding novel imaging biomarkers for age-related macular degeneration, probing the visual system for early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease and determining the best line of treatment on a personalized, case-by-case basis for diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause for blindness in working-age Americans. He’s also making sure animal control groups are as controlled as the researchers think they are, by checking individual specimens for ocular phenotypes of genetic mutation that could influence the outcome of an experiment.

An engineer by training, Farsiu completed an electrical engineering postdoctoral position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before joining Duke Medicine in 2007. He was named an assistant professor in ophthalmology in 2009, and ever since has been building bridges between the ophthalmology, computer science, biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering departments on campus.

Among his most frequent collaborators is Joseph Izatt, the Michael J. Fitzpatrick Professor of Engineering. Farsiu and Izatt work together to improve the quality of optical coherence tomography—a 3-dimensional microscope for retinal imaging. Their advancements have produced smaller and more portable devices with many advantages. For example, clinicians can make more accurate diagnosis of retinopathy of prematurity. Diagnosed too late, the disease can cause blindness; diagnosed incorrectly, and the treatment can cause permanent damage.

“Advancements in medical imaging hardware are both a blessing and a curse. The technology is extremely valuable, but it is also creating so much data that clinicians don’t have the time or the capacity to handle it all,” said Farsiu, who is working with ophthalmologists at Duke Medicine such as Cynthia Toth on software solutions. “We want to make automated algorithms that can condense the data into a few quantified measures that clinicians can use to make better diagnoses.”

While Farsiu has had a secondary appointment in biomedical engineering since 2009, he says that his new primary appointment is an important advancement. He expects the new appointment to provide better access to medical collaborations for Pratt students and to engineering opportunities for medical students. He also expects his new position to make existing ties between the two schools both wider and stronger.

“Everyone has images and needs help interpreting them,” said Farsiu. “I’m trying to translate the theoretical advancements being made in imaging processing into practical and user-friendly innovations that both clinicians and engineers can use to interpret their data. Duke is an exciting place for me because it has a wealth of cutting-edge imaging hardware and outstanding clinicians and scientists. I’m just building bridges between them all.”