This new app can screen for cancer just by you taking a selfie

This new app can screen for cancer just by you taking a selfie

In the age of social media and front-facing cameras, selfies are a fairly ubiquitous occurrence. Whether it's a post-workout pic, a snapchat-filtered masterpiece, or a classic case of #nofilter narcissism, people just love to take pictures of themselves.

Considering their prevalence, it's about time somebody found a productive use for them - and that's exactly what a team of researchers from the University of Washington (UW) have done. Using computer vision algorithms, the UW scientists created BiliScreen: an app that can detect the signs of pancreatic cancer from a selfie. All you have to do is snap a picture of yourself, and BiliScreen will analyse the levels of bilirubin in the whites of your eyes.

Bilirubin is the chemical that causes a yellowing of the skin and eyes in a condition known as jaundice, which most commonly occurs in babies, but can be an early indicator of pancreatic cancer in adults. BiliScreen is able to detect the chemical before the discolouration becomes noticeable, meaning that potentially fatal cases of the illness can be caught earlier.

BiliScreen app detects pancreatic cancer Credit: Engadget

"Pancreatic cancer is a terrible disease with no effective screening right now," said Jim Taylor, who helped develop BiliScreen. "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."

With a five-year survival rate of only nine per cent, pancreatic cancer is one of the more aggressive strains of the disease, and so finding methods of early detection is obviously vital progress towards providing more effective treatment.

"The problem with pancreatic cancer is that by the time you're symptomatic, it's frequently too late," explained Alex Mariakakis, the leader of the project. "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."

BiliScreen glasses can detect cancer signs Credit: Engadget

Because certain lighting conditions can skew the results, the app must be used with a special box that accounts for the presence of ambient light, or a pair of paper glasses with coloured squares that are calibrated to BiliScreen's detection programme. In a 70-person clinical study, BiliScreen proved to be around 90 per cent as accurate as a blood test when it came to detecting signs of jaundice.

Considering that nearly four in five people in the USA own a smartphone, Biliscreen would be an easily accessible - and most likely much cheaper - method of detecting early warning signs of cancer. The team have even put together a short video showing how to use the app, making it even easier for people to do the test themselves at home.

The team now hopes to conduct larger studies to assess the success rate of BiliScreen's detecting abilities, and also to improve the app's functionality so that the box or glasses will no longer be needed. Hopefully the project will become commercially available to the public in the near future, and we can move one step closer to tackling this horrible disease.