Could A New App Detect Pancreatic Cancer?

University of Washington researchers have recently developed an app that could be a real breakthrough in terms of cancer diagnosis, at least in detecting pancreatic cancer. The app goes by the name “BiliScreen” and it requires a smartphone camera to snap a photo of a person’s eyes; the app then uses computer vision algorithms and machine learning to detect increased bilirubin levels in the sclera (the white part of the eye).

Among the earliest symptoms of pancreatic cancer is jaundice. This is a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. It is typical of endocrine system diseases (of the kidneys, liver, pancreas, etc).

“The problem with pancreatic cancer is that by the time you’re symptomatic, it’s frequently too late,” explains lead author Alex Mariakakis. The Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering doctoral student goes on to say, “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.”

The BiliScreen technology is actually not as new as it might seem at first. This app actually builds on earlier work, previously developed through the Ubiquitous Computing Lab, also at the University of Washington. Previously, the UCL developed the BiliCam. This is also a smartphone app but it was designed to detect jaundice in newborns by scanning newborn skin. Obviously, if you can catch jaundice in a newborn—very early in life—you have a better chance of correcting or treating whatever caused it.

is important, though, because there is only one blood test that doctors use to measure bilirubin levels but doctors typically don’t administer it to adults unless there is already a concern to monitor the levels. And, at the same, it could be an unnecessary test that a patient would, otherwise, have to pay for. The app, then, becomes far more convenient and accessible, particularly to those who might have reason to suspect concern but no real evidence that would normally result in testing.

Testing the eyes is important because the sclera is consistent between different races, who might have very different skin tones, making jaundice harder to track. Washington Research Foundation Entrepreneurship Endowed Professor in Computer Science & Engineering and Electrical Engineering, Shwetak Patel comments, “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. Our question was: Could we capture some of these changes that might lead to earlier detection with a selfie?”