New Smartphone App Can Now Screen for Pancreatic Cancer with a Quick Selfie

One research team figured out how snapping a selfie can show signs of jaundice -- an early sign of pancreatic cancer. The program works with 90 percent effectiveness in trials, outperforming traditional methods of jaundice detection.

With worst survival rates, Pancreatic cancer is often most difficult to diagnose at early stages. More than 80 percent of patients seek medical help at a point where the tumors cannot be removed completely. Early detection, however, is possible by recognizing early symptoms. One of the most telling early signs wis Jaundice -- a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes.

The reason for the occurrence of Jaundice in case of Pancreatic cancer is due to cancerous growth that obstructs the common bile duct, leading to a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Unfortunately, Jaundice in itself is recognizable to the naked eye only in severe stages. However, researchers at the University of Washington have proposed a novel idea of detecting a person’s bilirubin level, even at lower levels through a smartphone app.

BiliScreen is an app developed by the researchers and utilizes a smartphone's built in camera to snap a picture of the eye. Using computer vision algorithms and machine learning tools, it then calculates the increased bilirubin levels, by understanding the color information in the sclera. Sclera is a white portion of the eye, which turns yellow due to the effect of Jaundice. In a clinical study of 70 people, the app correctly identified cases of concerns 89.7 percent of the time. That proved a higher percentage than trials using current blood tests to detect Jaundice.

Currently, the app works with two accessories that will ensure consistent results regardless of lighting conditions: paper glasses printed with colored squares to calibrate color and a 3D-printed box that blocks ambient lighting.

New Smartphone App Can Now Screen for Pancreatic Cancer with a Quick Selfie
Source: University of Washington

The app is highly useful for early screening or ongoing disease management. It allows patients and healthcare providers to track how well the treatment is working.

"Pancreatic cancer is a terrible disease with no effective screening right now. Our goal is to have more people who are unfortunate enough to get pancreatic cancer to be fortunate enough to catch it in time to have surgery that gives them a better chance of survival," said Dr. Jim Taylor, a professor in the UW Medicine Department of Pediatrics. Taylor also serves as a co-author of this research.

While the research is focused on detecting Pancreatic cancer early, the algorithm developed for BiliScreen can also be applied in other observations such as Osteogenesis  imperfecta, which is a genetic disorder that results in brittle bones, producing a blue tinge in the sclera. Diabetes, Hyperemia and Conjuctivits that affect the contrast and amount of blood vessels on the scleral surface can also be diagnosed.

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In the next step, these researchers want to test the app on wider range of people that are at the risk of Jaundice and underlying conditions, as well as make usability improvements by removing the need of additional accessories like the glasses or the box.

Kashyap Vyas is an entrepreneur, marketer and writer. He holds a Master’s degree in Thermal Engineering with several research papers to his credit. Kashyap primarily authors in-depth content in the science & technology space. You can find more about him on LinkedIn.

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