Low cost, handheld device to diagnose melanoma wins James Dyson Award

Four engineering undergraduates from McMaster University, Canada, have become the international winners of the 2017 James Dyson Award for their work on melanoma diagnosis. The team will receive £30,000 to develop its idea.

In the UK, 37 people are diagnosed with melanoma every day. When diagnosed and treated early, melanoma can be curable, even so – in the UK alone – approximately seven deaths occur every day due to the disease.

Early diagnostic methods rely heavily on visual inspections, which are inaccurate. More advanced methods are time consuming and expensive, adding avoidable strain to already over-burdened health services. Those who do not go through biopsy procedures run the risk of missed detection.

The Canadian team’s solution, the sKan, is a cheaper, easy to use diagnostic system that could save lives through early detection, while also saving health services valuable time and money.

Cancerous cells have a higher metabolic rate than normal cells. As such, they release more heat. This means that after a thermal shock is applied, the cancerous tissue will regain heat more quickly than the non-cancerous tissue, indicating a strong likelihood of melanoma.

The sKan incorporates an array of highly accurate and inexpensive thermistors which is placed on the region of interest, and tracks its return to ambient temperature after being cooled. The thermistor readings are digitised, whereupon time synchronous averaging, temperature variation detection and spatial validation are conducted on the signal. The results are displayed as a heat map and temperature difference time plot, together with a statement of findings – showing the presence, or lack of presence, of melanoma.

While non-invasive, thermal imaging techniques for melanoma diagnosis exist, these are expensive as they use high resolution thermal imaging cameras, which cost upwards of £20,000. The anticipated cost of the sKan is less than $1,000.

James Dyson said: “By using widely available and inexpensive components, the sKan allows for melanoma skin cancer detection to be readily accessible to the many. It’s a very clever device with the potential to save lives around the world. This is why I have selected it at this year’s international winner.”

The team have big ambitions for their device and plan to use the prize money to continue reiterating and refining the product to a level where it will receive FDA approval. From here, they hope to see the device being used across medical practices worldwide.