Originally Published in CRAIN'S CHICAGO

 PhotoniCare's ClearView imaging tool uses an advanced light-based technology to see through the eardrum. The 3-D images are then projected on the screen.

PhotoniCare's ClearView imaging tool uses an advanced light-based technology to see through the eardrum. The 3-D images are then projected on the screen.

A Champaign startup has developed an imaging tool that it says may help better diagnose ear infections.

PhotoniCare's new hand-held device uses advanced light-based technology to see through the eardrum to the middle ear. Otitis media, commonly known as middle-ear infection, is an inflammation in the middle ear, the area behind the eardrum. It's usually associated with the buildup of fluid.

The imaging technology, called optical coherence tomography, or OCT, is similar to ultrasound, except that it uses near-infrared light waves instead of sound waves to provide 3-D images, which are then projected on the system's screen. The tool also captures video of the eardrum surface.

The current tool used for diagnosing ear infections, the otoscope, allows a provider to see only the surface of the eardrum. They often rely on other factors, like redness and swelling, to make a diagnosis.

“The current gold standard is essentially a magnifying glass,” says PhotoniCare CEO Ryan Shelton, who founded the company in 2013 with Ryan Nolan and Stephen Boppart. “Our goal is to take the guesswork out of the diagnosis.”

Ear infections are one of the most common reasons kids see doctors and the leading reason kids get antibiotics, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Shelton says a more accurate diagnosis can help reduce overprescription of antibiotics, help physicians better manage the condition and prevent surgery or hearing loss, which can occur if symptoms persist.

PhotoniCare was recently awarded $2.1 million through the National Institute of Health's Small Business Innovation Research program. The company says it will use the money to fund a 300-patient trial at the Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C., and the Carle Foundation Hospital in Champaign. PhotoniCare is pursuing FDA clearance and expects to launch the product next year.

“There is probably more overdiagnosing than underdiagnosing” of ear infections, says Dr. David Soglin, chief medical officer at LaRabida Hospital in Chicago. “If there was a way to identify fluid behind the drum, I think that would be a helpful tool.”

The problem, Soglin says, is that many ear infections clear up on their own in about two days. A positive diagnosis might eliminate what he calls the “watchful waiting” period if doctors feel compelled to write a prescription on the spot. “Fluid doesn't always mean antibiotics,” he says. “Some education is needed.”

Shelton says he was inspired to launch the company after his first child was born in 2011 and was diagnosed with an ear infection 10 times in his first year. They were prescribed antibiotics five times, which weren't always effective.

“We didn't get a lot of great answers or information,” he says.

All three founders have ties to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Shelton is a former post-doctoral research associate. Nolan spent more than three years as an imaging research specialist and Boppart is an engineering professor who runs the university's Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory, where the three first worked together.

In 2015 the founders raised $250,000 from friends and family in Champaign and the Chicago area. In March, the company closed on $1.7 million in funding led by Julz Co. and Almond Tree Capital. Shelton says they expect to raise another round of funding to bring the product to market and help the company develop applications for eye and dental care, along with a device for consumer use. The cost of the device has not yet been determined.

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