Researchers at the University of Washington have harnessed the power of technology to diagnose pancreatic cancer sooner.

Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to diagnose. One of the only visible symptoms of the disease is jaundice – a yellowing of the skin and eyes caused by high levels of bilirubin in the blood.

But by the time jaundice is visible to the naked eye, bilirubin levels are quite elevated and pancreatic cancer is typically advanced. Currently, the only way to test for abnormal levels of bilirubin is through blood tests.

To help make screening easier, scientists at the University of Washington have developed the BiliScreen app.

Using your smartphone’s camera, the BiliScreen app takes a photo of your eyes. Then, a machine learning system (a type of artificial intelligence) measures the levels of bilirubin in the whites of your eyes. The best part? BiliScreen can recognize the early stages of jaundice – before it’s obvious to human beings.

In an early clinical study, the BiliScreen app was paired with a small box – similar to a virtual reality headset – to help block out additional light and account for differing types of light in different rooms. Together with the box, BiliScreen correctly identified 89.7% of concerning cases.


Alex Mariakakis, the lead author on the study, explains: “The problem with pancreatic cancer is that by the time you’re symptomatic, it’s frequently too late. 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.”

Further studies will look into testing the app on a wider variety of people – including those who are at risk for hepatitis and other diseases that cause jaundice. Scientists also hope to remove the need for the light-blocking box that the BiliScreen app currently requires.

With a box or without, it’s clear that this technology will help patients to recognise the early symptoms of cancer and seek help.

Though it may seem simple, a quick selfie and the BiliScreen app could potentially save your life.

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