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"White-Eye" Photos May Indicate Rare Cancer In Children

NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) - Texas doctors are working to develop a new and easy way to diagnose a rare but serious form of eye cancer.

Retinoblastoma, also known as RB, is characterized by tumors that form inside the eye. In the United States, it appears in some 350 babies and toddlers each year. In most cases the cancer is treatable – if caught early enough. But RB is potentially deadly if the cancer spreads beyond the eye and into the brain.

Matt and Becky Forman are parents to twin girls, three-year-olds Makenzie and Madison. When their daughters were six-months-old, they began to notice Makenzie's left eye was not developing the same as her right.

"Her pupil didn't look normal. You could see into her eye. There was no reflection back," Becky recalled.

The couple said Makenzie's left eye appeared smaller. It wasn't until the 2011 Memorial Day weekend, that Matt says they became concerned enough to call the pediatrician.

"We just happened to have her in a bouncy chair laying in the living room. When I went to pick her up, I just noticed in her eye, a hollowness."

Within days, the Formans learned Makenzie would need chemotherapy, and doctors would possibly need to remove her deteriorating eye.

"It was hard. It was just kind of fast moving. Very difficult," said Becky.

As the new parents searched for any indication of what was happening to their daughter's health, they looked back through baby pictures. Almost immediately, they noticed a strange appearance to Makenzie's eyes.

In flash photography, Makenzie's pupils appeared white, as opposed to the normal "red eye" that appeared in Madison's photos. "We were able to see the glow in her eye."

"Red eye" occurs when the flash of a camera reflects on the retina – the light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the inner eye. A health retina appears orange or red in color and thus the "red eye" that is illuminated by flash photography.

"White eye" in photos does not always indicate a problem, but it can be a clue to an underlying condition.

Dr. Michael Hunt, an ophthalmologist at Pediatric Eye Specialists in Fort Worth, explains what causes "white eye". "It can be anything from a problem with the cornea, to the eye being cloudy, or a problem with the retina or optic nerve."

Dr. Hunt says it's the same reason that pediatricians will shine a light to look into a patient's pupil. "If they notice a difference in reflections between the two pupils, say something to the pediatrician. The tumor itself can be life-threatening."

At Baylor University in Waco, another parent of a child with RB is working on a project that could help parents, or anyone with a smart phone, better identify signs of "white eye".

Dr. Bryan Shaw is a parent to six-year-old Noah. Like Makenzie Forman, Noah was diagnosed with RB at around four months old.

Dr. Shaw says he was not aware of "white eye" showing up in photographs, but his wife was. "She actually read about it in a parenting magazine. She told me about it and I said, 'Really?' I just thought, 'no honey, that can't be.' But she was right."

As the parents went back through thousands of old images of baby Noah, they noticed the first sign of "white eye" in pictures of Noah at just 12 days old.

"We think if we were second-time parents, we would have known something was wrong, with the way he was not looking at us," said Shaw.

Dr. Shaw is a chemist at Baylor. The scientist in him began wondering if there was a way to use the smartphones we use as cameras to help detect signs of what may be RB or other eye abnormalities.

"You can have pictures on your iPad that you select and it will scan them and tell you where the faces and eyes are and whether or not it thinks they look normal," he said.

Both Noah and Makenzie lost an eye to cancer, and wear glasses today to protect their vision in their good eye. They receive regular MRIs and checkups, and so far, their parents say they are healthy.

Shaw and a team of computer scientists at Baylor are developing an app for the iPhone and iPad.

While not every instance of "white eye" is indicative of RB, they're asking for parents to submit pictures of "white eye" and "red eye" to the project, to help train the app to identify false positives.

Pictures can be submitted to Shaw via email, at:

The team hopes to have the app available for free download within the next couple of months.

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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