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Snapping Selfies to Screen for Pancreatic Cancer

New app detects pancreatic cancer by measuring yellowness in the eyes.

Mary Bates, Contributor
Thursday, September 7, 2017


Dennis Wise/University of Washington


Pancreatic cancer has one of the worst prognoses amongst all forms of cancer. Only 9 percent of patients survive for five years after diagnosis, in part because early signs of the disease often go undetected.

Now, researchers from the University of Washington have developed a smartphone app that could allow people to easily screen themselves for pancreatic cancer, hepatitis and other diseases, simply by snapping a selfie. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies and will be presented at the upcoming Ubicomp 2017 conference in Hawaii.

One of the earliest symptoms of pancreatic cancer and some other diseases is jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes due to an excess of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a component of bile that is normally excreted through the digestive tract, but pancreatic cancers can block the ducts that carry bile from the liver to the small intestine, causing the substance to build up.

However, jaundice is only discernable to the naked eye in severe stages, and by the time most people notice the discoloration, bilirubin levels are already dangerously high.

The new app, called BiliScreen, uses a smartphone camera, computer vision algorithms and machine learning tools to detect milder forms of jaundice in the eye before humans can see them.

In an initial clinical study of 70 people, the BiliScreen app—used in conjunction with a 3-D printed box that controls the eye’s exposure to light—correctly identified cases of concern 89.7 percent of the time, and rarely mistook healthy patients for sick ones.

The researchers hope that BiliScreen will one day serve as an easy-to-use, noninvasive screening tool that could help someone determine whether or not to consult a doctor for further testing. With pancreatic cancer, by the time you show symptoms, it could be too late. An app like BiliScreen might allow people to catch the disease early enough to undergo lifesaving treatment.