Researchers develop app that can scan for pancreatic cancer via selfie

Scientists from the University of Washington have developed an app that allows smartphone users to easily check whether they have pancreatic cancer via a selfie.

The BiliScreen app uses the camera of a smartphone. If a user takes a selfie of their eyes, the app is able to detect an increased level of bilirubin in the whites of the eye via algorithms and machine learning. One of the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer and some other diseases is jaundice, in which the skin and eyes develop a certain yellow discoloration. This is caused by an increase in bilirubin in the blood. By the time people notice the discoloration in someone’s eye, the cancer is often already at an advanced stage. The app is able to detect the discoloration much earlier than the human eye and indicates whether the values ​​are high enough to indicate a possible disease.

For the selfies, the researchers used a special 3D-printed holder, a kind of variant of the Google Cardboard. This is where the smartphone is placed. In this way, the smartphone’s camera is enabled to take a photo of the user’s eye under the right conditions with the right amount of light. The flash is also used for this. The researchers have developed a detection system that can isolate the white parts of the eye, after which the app calculates the color information based on the different wavelengths of the light. This then leads to an estimate of the bilirubin value via machine learning and algorithms.

In an initial study of 70 patients, the BiliScreen app was found to correctly predict worrying levels of bilirubin in nearly 90 percent of cases when compared with the results of a commonly used blood test to determine bilirubin levels. The results when using the smartphone holder were slightly better than when using clear glasses to help the app calibrate the colours.

The research, which will be presented on September 13, is just the first small study that shows the potential of the technology, according to professor and co-author Jim Taylor. Before the app can really be used, more research needs to be done, for example on a larger group of different people who have an increased chance of an increased degree of jaundice and the underlying causes. It is also hoped that further research will no longer require special accessories such as the smartphone holder.

Pancreatic cancer is a cancer that is difficult to cure, partly because it is often too late when symptoms appear. There is also no effective method for screening. In addition, it is an aggressive form of cancer that, compared to other cancers, is not very sensitive to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The tumor cells in the pancreas are located in a firm tissue, which makes it difficult for medicines to reach the tumor cells. According to recent US figures, the survival rate of patients after five years is 9 percent.