A new app that uses selfies to check for signs of pancreatic cancer has “shown promise” in helping scientists correctly identify cases of concern 89.7% of the time.
The technology, called ‘BiliScreen’, uses your smartphone camera and machine learning to detect changes in the colour of a person’s sclera (white of the eye) and was developed from an already-existent version that screened newborn babies for jaundice.
Pancreatic cancer has one of the worst prognosis of all cancers, according to Cancer Research UK, there are over 9,500 new cases of pancreatic cancer every year in the UK and 8,800 deaths, with less than 1% of patients surviving more than ten years after diagnosis.
Lead author of the study, Alex Mariakakis, said: “The problem with pancreatic cancer is that by the time you’re symptomatic, it’s frequently too late.”
This is because there are no telltale symptoms or non-invasive screening tools to catch a glimpse of a tumour before it spreads, so current programs require doctors to conduct a blood test, administered only to adults who are a cause for concern.
But the team from the University of Washington were relying on one of the earliest symptoms - jaundice, or a slight yellow discolouration of the skin - caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood, that is not always visible to the naked eye.
Senior author Shwetak Patel said: “The eyes are a really interesting gateway into the body ― tears can tell you how much glucose you have, sclera can tell you how much bilirubin is in your blood.”
This is also a good symptom to target because unlike checking skin for yellowness, that can alter based on skin tone, changes in the sclera are more consistent across all races and ethnicities.
The team hopes that the app, used in conjunction with a 3D printed box that controls the eye’s exposure to light, could be used by patients at home once a month, or so.
“In the privacy of their own homes ― some might catch the disease early enough to undergo treatment that could save their lives,” said Mariakakis.
Beyond diagnosis, ‘BiliScreen’ could also potentially ease the burden on patients with pancreatic cancer who require frequent bilirubin monitoring.
Incidence rates for pancreatic cancer in Britain are projected to rise by 6% between 2014 and 2035, to 21 cases per 100,000 people by 2035.And one in every 71 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during their lifetime.
Pancreatic cancer, which is caused by the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the pancreas – a large gland that’s part of the digestive system.
In England it is more common in people living in the most deprived areas, but can also be inherited from a person’s parents in 10% of cases.