Meet the Inventors: The sKan

Meet the Inventors Week 07 — Despite the fact that melanomas are harmless if detected early, they still account for nearly 80 percent of all skin cancer related deaths. One team of Canadian inventors think they have created a device that may one day solve the problem.

2017 international JDA 2017 winner The sKan pictured | Photography Dyson/Matthew Beedle

Skin cancer is on the rise. Despite the fact that melanoma is harmless if detected early, it still accounts for nearly 80% of all skin cancer related deaths. The problem lies in the fact that diagnosis is often left up to visual inspections of moles or time-consuming and expensive biopsies.

In the US alone, over 8,000 die from melanoma skin cancer every year. It is the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer, accounting for over 50 percent of all the combined cancer diagnosis in a given year.

And yet, there is a 90 percent survival rate (for 10 years or more) when treatment is effectively administered. A huge 86 percent of the skin cancer cases in the UK are registered as “preventable” by the charity Cancer Research UK.

That’s because more than 90 percent of skin cancer is caused by exposure to direct sunlight.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “due to their relative lack of skin pigmentation Caucasian populations generally have a much higher risk of getting non-melanoma or melanoma skin cancers than dark-skinned populations.”

Nevertheless, while the risk factor might be lower for African Americans, Asians, and Latinos, skin cancer can be the most deadly for these groups — in part because it isn’t always diagnosed quickly enough.

Again according to the WHO advice: “In contrast, people with pale or freckled skin, fair or red hair and blue eyes belong to the highest risk group (skin types I, II); people with dark hair and eyes who do not normally get sunburnt are at medium risk of developing skin cancer (skin types III, IV). Nevertheless excessive exposure to intense sunlight can damage all skin types — the risk of eye damage and heat stroke is the same for everyone.”

The sKan uses low-cost thermistors and simple-to-use software making melanoma diagnosis accessible | Photography Dyson/Alex Griffiths

The winner of 2017’s James Dyson Award (JDA), the sKan*, aims to offer a low-cost solution for detecting melanoma. The device was created by four undergraduate students who were frustrated by the fact that one of the ‘most treatable cancers also has one of the most inefficient, ineffective diagnosis methods.’

‘Frankly speaking,’ the team explained ‘we found it quite unacceptable that so many lives are lost annually from something could have been easily avoided if detected earlier.’

Working together out of their shared kitchen, the four undergraduates shocked their housemates each time they would return home only to find that the kitchen had been turned into a DIY biomedical engineering laboratory.

‘People were shocked,’ jokes Rotimi Fadiya, 22, ‘we’d hooked up the thermistors to the oven in the kitchen and when people came home they would ask us what we were doing. But they stopped asking after the second or third time.’

Team sKan employed the heat their kitchen cooker could produce to test the heat mapping software and equipment they were developing, after they read research that said melanomas could be identified using heat mapping.

Getting sKan deep with the winning device of the 2017 James Dyson Award | Photography Dyson/Alex Griffiths

Before working on the sKan, the team of students had about 12 ideas they were considering for their James Dyson Award application including one designed to ‘help people correct their posture using foot supports.’ They were ‘much more confident we could achieve that idea,’ but their adviser at McMaster University guided them away from the idea and onto the more challenging skin cancer detection concept that would eventually become the sKan. Their slouching fellow students would have to wait for better posture.

Their professor, Dr. Hubert deBruin, Co-Director of Integrated Biomedical Engineering & Health Sciences at McMaster University, told the students to ‘go out and buy the thermistors and test out whether [their] idea would actually work.’

Which is exactly what they did.

The sKan software visualises regions of skin as a heat map which is easily accessible | Photography Dyson/Alex Griffiths

‘We’ve had great feedback,’ Shivad Bhavsar, 23, explains. ‘As we still have to go to pre-clinical trials people can’t yet speak to the tech, but what we can all agree on is that there is an appetite for improving the existing situation.’

‘Innovation in the melanoma diagnosis space is fairly new,’ he adds, ‘and the research to base our device upon is relatively new as well. Research on thermal recovery of cancerous tissue is actually not as much of a well-known concept as you may think. Other devices on the market use fairly well-understood characteristics about melanoma/skin cancer, and as such the focus of most groups is trending towards very advanced technologies such as AI and complicated spectroscopy techniques.

‘However, with added complexity comes added cost. With the sKan, we are actually going in the other direction and finding a low-cost solution implementing new research, which we think is the way to go especially with healthcare systems around the world looking to streamline and reduce costs.’

Dr. Raimond Wong, Chairman of the Gastrointestinal Oncology Site Group at the Juravinski Cancer Centre says ‘current methods of detecting whether a lesion is melanoma or not is through the trained eyes of physicians — resulting in patients undergoing unnecessary surgery or late detection of melanoma. The sKan has the potential to be a low-cost, easy-to-use and effective device that can be afforded and adopted across health services.’

Winning the James Dyson Award means that team sKan can now make meaningful changes to their prototype using the £30,000 prize money. They are currently in the early stages of taking the device to pre-clinical trials with the hope of one day soon getting FDA approval and bringing a much-needed solution to skin cancer misdiagnosis to the people who need it most.

Left: Team member Prateek Mathur, 23, shows the sKan in action Right: The sKan’s thermistor in detail | Photography Dyson/Alex Griffiths
Left: The sKan’s hardware feeds live data into custom software Right: Low cost equipment reduces the cost of a diagnosis | Photography Dyson/Alex Griffiths

Words: Dyson on:

The sKan device is a working prototype, which is still under development. It is not yet ready for use in a clinical setting or FDA approved, but this is the inventors’ ambition.

Dyson’s quarterly publication about design, engineering and technology. Follow us @dyson_on to see what makes us tick.

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