Smartphone selfies to help spot early signs of pancreatic cancer

Washington: Researchers at the University of Washington have developed an app that could allow people to easily screen for pancreatic cancer simply by snapping a smartphone selfie.

The app named ‘BiliScreen’ uses a smartphone camera, computer vision algorithms and machine learning tools to detect increased bilirubin levels in a person’s sclera, or the white part of the eye.

One of the earliest symptoms of pancreatic cancer, as well as other diseases, is jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood.

In adults, the whites of the eyes are more sensitive than skin to changes in bilirubin levels, which can be an early warning sign for pancreatic cancer or hepatitis.

The ability to detect signs of jaundice when bilirubin levels are minimally elevated could enable an entirely new screening programme for at-risk individuals.

“The problem with pancreatic cancer is that by the time you’re symptomatic, it’s frequently too late,” said lead author Alex Mariakakis.

“The hope is that if people can do this simple test once a month — in the privacy of their own homes — some might catch the disease early enough to undergo treatment that could save their lives,” Mariakakis said in a statement released by the university.

In an initial clinical study of 70 people, the app — used in conjunction with a 3D printed box that controls the eye’s exposure to light — correctly identified cases of concern 89.7 per cent of the time, compared to the blood test currently used.

The new app has been described in a paper to be presented at Ubicomp 2017, the Association for Computing Machinery’s international joint conference on pervasive and ubiquitous computing to be held at Maui, Hawaii from September 11-15.

The blood test that doctors currently use to measure bilirubin levels — which is typically not administered to adults unless there is reason for concern — requires access to a health care professional and is inconvenient for frequent screening.

BiliScreen is designed to be an easy-to-use, non-invasive tool that could help determine whether someone ought to consult a doctor for further testing.

The researchers believe that beyond diagnosis, BiliScreen could also potentially ease the burden on patients with pancreatic cancer who require frequent bilirubin monitoring.