Harry Nickerson

Harry Nickerson: Harnessing the Power of AI for Early Diagnosis of Retinal Diseases

Harry Nickerson is positively beaming with pride — as he should be. The 14-year-old, who’s about to wrap up ninth grade and is excited to head into high school this fall, just clinched a silver medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair 2024 for his groundbreaking project focused on using AI to diagnose retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a hereditary eye disease.

“I created a basic app for retinal image screening,” explains Nickerson, who’s from Halifax. “I used AI to look at photos of the retina to determine whether or not people have RP, which is the eye condition that I also have. Coming home with the silver medal was very exciting.”

Diagnosed with RP at the age of nine, Nickerson’s motivation for this project was a natural extension of his personal connection to inherited retinal diseases and his interest in biomedical sciences. And he’s no stranger to landing on the Canada-Wide Science Fair podium, either. Last year, Nickerson’s project on algorithms to find the centre of the pupil and help realign visual field machines took home the gold medal, and he’s looking forward to participating again next year.

“At last year’s fair, I was inspired by how AI could be used to help screen for different medical conditions,” he says. “Knowing that RP can be seen on the retina in different forms, I wondered if I could train an algorithm to look at photos of the retina and identify RP. It worked. The app that I created can give a tentative diagnosis within a couple seconds.”

Nickerson’s project relied on the use of fundus photos — photos of the rear of the eye — of people who have RP. “I screen for RP through the use of an AI image classifier, and I needed a lot of images to properly train it,” he explains. To find this dataset of retinal images, Nickerson reached out to Fighting Blindness Canada (FBC), and the FBC team connected him to an Italian research institute that was able to provide him with the necessary images.

“We were thrilled to support and collaborate with Harry on his project, and it was incredible to see his hard work and dedication recognized on a national level,” says Dr. Larissa Moniz, FBC’s Director of Research and Mission Programs.

“It’s really important to help increase people’s access to diagnosis for eye diseases and early diagnosis especially is important so that people can get access to the services and support they need,” says Nickerson.

Besides his impressive science fair projects, Nickerson is also an accomplished athlete. He’s a competitive gymnast and plays goalball — a Paralympic sport for athletes who are blind or visually-impaired — at the national level. “I’m the youngest player to ever make the Canadian Senior National Team,” he says.

Nickerson was also recently selected for a goalball training camp with the Canadian national goalball team. He credits goalball with helping him to come out of his shell and to come to terms with his vision loss.

“When I was diagnosed with RP, at first it was really sad,” he says. “I didn’t really want to do anything at all. I felt very alone. But goalball really helped me. And my diagnosis has been a blessing, now that I think about it. Had I not been diagnosed, I wouldn’t have been able to play goalball. I wouldn’t have had my science projects.”

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