Setting his sights on preventing blindness

Dr Dinesh Visva Gunasekeran
Medical Doctor, Clinical Researcher/Innovator,
Ministry of Health Holdings

Alumnus, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine

It may be a significant problem that currently affects over 20 million people in Asia, yet eye disease - which can lead to visual impairment (VI), and eventually, blindness - remains a condition that many are unaware of.

In Singapore alone, approximately 80 per cent of individuals with certain eye diseases such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy do not even know that they have such a condition.

Dr Dinesh Visva Gunasekeran, however, aims to change that.

To that end, the 26-year-old founded VISRE (Visual Reality), an initiative which helps to facilitate early detection of eye diseases through the innovative use of immersive technology like Augmented and Virtual Reality solutions.

Recounting how he came about the idea of VISRE, Dinesh said: “It began as a result of my volunteering to organise free health screenings in underprivileged communities. I noticed that many individuals newly diagnosed with eye diseases had no symptoms and were completely unaware of their disease, leading to late detection after irreversible vision loss had developed. This inspired me to study eye screening and try to develop solutions to address the high prevalence of VI that exists internationally – even in first-world countries.”

Dinesh (second from left) with classmates at his NUS Commencement Ceremony in 2015.

“This research was enabled by my breadth of experiences as a medical student in the National University of Singapore (NUS), where I was posted to various eye departments locally, as well as overseas via clinical electives at the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad and Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, USA.”

“While at these postings, I witnessed again the recurring issue whereby many patients were only coming to eye specialists after moderate to advanced-stage eye diseases, having already developed irreversible VI and sometimes even complications of the disease(s).”

Upon further research, Dinesh realised that the main contributing causes to VI are “lack of awareness and accessibility to eye screening” – two issues, he believes, that VISRE can help to solve.

“VISRE was borne out of this need for a better, community-based solution to the causes of VI,” Dinesh explained. “It aims to achieve this through Augmented and Virtual Reality solutions such as digital educational campaigns about eye diseases and early detection of them.”

“After all, it is better to detect diseases at an early stage when the diseases may still be amenable to medication, preferably before they require more invasive surgical interventions, and before the onset of irreversible complications.”

Dinesh receiving the Best Paper Award (Education category) at the Singhealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress 2018 from the eminent Professor Wong Tien Yin, also an NUS alumnus.

Currently, the VISRE core solution is still in the pilot phase and has yet to be launched to the public. Dinesh believes that will happen sooner rather than later, as the results from their initial clinical pilot testing of a single prototype were encouraging.

“The testing gave us strong signals for potential paths to sustainability, as well as important feedback for our overall strategy,” Dinesh said.

“We’ve also engaged partners through the support of a fellowship award from the Commonwealth Society. This will enable us to expand our solution, and to move into the implementation phase for the prototype.”

Dinesh (first from right) with collaborators from the Stanford University Ophthalmology department.

There was further good news for Dinesh in December 2018 when he was awarded the National Youth Fund scholarship award. The award supported his trip to Silicon Valley and the Stanford University Ophthalmology department, where he set up new collaborations for youth-led health innovation projects in NUS as well as multinational eye health education campaigns supported by VISRE.

As the founder and project lead for VISRE, Dinesh knows that he has to “familiarise himself with the approaches and terminology of the relevant industries”. He also has to be able to think “two to three steps ahead” to anticipate the team’s needs, as well as any possible issues that may arise. These were key lessons he learnt from his previous experience co-founding a start-up, Doctorbell with fellow NUS alumni Patrick Poh, Nicholas Chew, Ming Xiang Tham and Paul Poh, from the schools of Computing and Business.

The all-encompassing scope of work may seem daunting, but Dinesh believes the strong medical foundation and rigour built during his time at NUS’ Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine has been instrumental in his journey of initiating VISRE.

Dinesh (third from left) having dinner with NUS tutors and fellow colleagues during his undergraduate days.

“The NUS Medicine programme provides opportunities for self-directed clinical postings locally and overseas during our electives to gain exposure to other health systems, so those interested in medical research – like I was – had ample opportunities to try their hand at it,” said Dinesh, who was named in Forbes’ prestigious 30 Under 30 Asia list last year. “Many of my colleagues too have leveraged their experiences in these postings to go on to drive many great advances in their various disciplines.”

“Personally, I feel that this early exposure helped to accelerate my development both as a clinician and researcher, and gave me unique insights that were crucial to my role in projects like VISRE.”

“NUS’ rigorous programme also provided me with deep exposure to all major medical specialities, and gave me the confidence and ability to function as an independent junior physician.”

While Dinesh may have already graduated from NUS, he continues to be involved with the University as an advisor and volunteer doctor at some of their health screenings.

Dinesh (first from left) with fellow schoolmates from NUS on vacation in Niseko.

More recently, he has also contributed his “energy and limited experience” as a faculty advisor to the Medical Grand Challenge (MGC) – a student-led programme that encourages medical innovation and multidisciplinary collaboration among current undergraduates.

It is no surprise that Dinesh is willing to sacrifice his time to give back to NUS, having himself benefitted from this culture of helping and collaboration during his time as a medical student.

“The medical fraternity is very supportive of students and has a strong culture of imparting knowledge from seniors to juniors,” Dinesh said. “Working doctors would often find time outside of their already busy schedules to teach and guide us along the journey of medical school. Our interactions with working doctors often also involved them sharing personal anecdotes about their work experience, which helped shape our career choices thereafter.”

“Even our undergraduate seniors would take time to share their learning and exam experiences with us. Amongst ourselves, we often shared notes taken during lessons and discussed interesting medical case studies from hospital attachments.”

“It was a community in which there was no pressure to compete with one another as much as there was to compete with the best version of ourselves, in order to better serve our future patients.”