An app uses smartphone’s camera to screen for pancreatic cancer

BiliScreen app

With a five-year survival rate of 9 percent, pancreatic cancer has one of the worst prognoses. One of the reasons is that there are no telltale symptoms or non-invasive screening tools to catch a tumor before it spreads.

Researchers from the University of Washington have been working to tackle this problem with a mobile app that could allow people to easily screen for pancreatic cancer and other diseases simply by snapping a smartphone selfie.

They released an app called BiliScreen that utilizes a smartphone’s camera, as well as computer vision algorithms and machine learning tools to detect increased bilirubin levels in a person’s sclera, or the white part of the eye.

The yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood is called jaundice, and is one of the earliest symptoms of pancreatic cancer, as well as other diseases. 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 lead author Alex Mariakakis, a doctoral student at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “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 blood test that doctors currently use to measure bilirubin levels requires access to a health care professional and is inconvenient for frequent screening. In sharp contrast, BiliScreen is designed to be an easy-to-use, non-invasive tool that could help determine whether someone ought to consult a doctor for further testing. Beyond diagnosis, BiliScreen could also potentially ease the burden on patients with pancreatic cancer who require frequent bilirubin monitoring.

In an initial clinical study of 70 people, the BiliScreen app correctly identified cases of concern 89.7 percent of the time, compared to the blood test currently used.

“This relatively small initial study shows the technology has promise,” said co-author Dr. Jim Taylor, a professor in the UW Medicine Department of Pediatrics whose father died of pancreatic cancer at age 70.

Next steps for researchers 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.

BiliScreen builds on earlier work from the UW’s Ubiquitous Computing Lab, which previously developed BiliCam, a smartphone app that screens for newborn jaundice by taking a picture of a baby’s skin. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics showed BiliCam provided accurate estimates of bilirubin levels in 530 infants.