SEATTLE – Researchers at the University of Washington are developing an app that could allow people to easily screen for pancreatic cancer and other diseases with a smartphone camera.
“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,” said Alex Mariakakis, one of the lead authors of a recently-presented paper describing the researchers’ work.
BiliScreen uses a smartphone’s built-in camera and flash to collect pictures of a person’s eye as they snap a selfie. A computer vision system automatically and effectively isolates the white parts of the eye, then the app calculates the color information based on the wavelengths of light that are being reflected and absorbed, and correlates it with bilirubin levels using machine learning algorithms.
According to the researchers, 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. The ability to detect signs of jaundice when bilirubin levels are minimally elevated—but before they’re visible to the naked eye—could enable an entirely new screening program for at-risk individuals.
“The problem with pancreatic cancer is that by the time you’re symptomatic, it’s frequently too late,” said Mariakakis.
In an initial clinical study of 70 people, the BiliScreen app correctly identified cases of concern 89.7% of the time, compared to the blood test currently used that requires access to a health care professional, according to the paper.
Researchers said BiliScreen could also potentially be used on patients with pancreatic cancer who require frequent bilirubin monitoring.
Next steps for the research team include testing the app on a wider range of people at risk for jaundice and underlying conditions, as well as continuing to make usability improvements.
“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, in a statement.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Coulter Foundation and endowment funds from the Washington Research Foundation.