Could you spot skin cancer accurately? Meet the device that thinks it sKan

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Nov 9, 2017 · 6 min read

Every year the James Dyson Award gives £30,000 to a problem-solving example of innovative design engineering. This year’s winner is the sKan, a low-cost melanoma detection device that its designers hope will finally make diagnosing skin cancer cheaper and more accurate.

Can you spot the difference between a melanoma and a mole? | Photography WikiCommons

Research from clinics in the US shows doctors can only properly differentiate normal lesions from melanoma about one in 30 times. While there is equipment available that can accurately identify skin cancer, the problem is that these tools can cost as much as $100,000, making them virtually inaccessible to the professionals who would most benefit from using them. To most people the prognosis looked hopeless. But, to four undergraduates in Canada it was an opportunity to solve a problem with good old-fashioned engineering design.

Michael Takla, 23, Rotimi Fadiya, 22, Prateek Mathur, 23, and Shivad Bhavsar, 23, were biomedical engineering students at McMaster University in Canada. The winners of this year’s James Dyson Award, they decided to tackle this global issue using simple equipment that most can afford to buy, to develop a device that costs just $1,000 and which they built in the shared kitchen of their student housing. Their mission was simple: to reduce the cost of accurately diagnosing melanomas.

The sKan device uses skin temperature measuring equipment to scan potentially cancerous areas of skin | Photography Alex Griffiths

What is the problem?

In the UK alone, 37 people are diagnosed with melanomas every day. Even though it is one of the most curable cancers, the disease still takes the lives of more than 2,500 people a year in the UK and 130,000 globally. Unfortunately, when you find a melanoma today, it is a far greater threat to your life than it should be given how relatively easy they are to treat.

So why is melanoma such a pernicious disease to treat? The simple answer is: misdiagnosis. Historically when it comes to spotting a melanoma, the best advice has been to ‘remember your ABCDEs’. This was the mnemonic for remembering what to look for in suspicious moles. Each letter corresponds to a different symptom: Asymmetry (does it have a regular shape), border (does it have clearly defined edges), colour (does it contain a variety of colours), diameter (is it larger than normal) and evolving (has it changed).

But recently the system has fallen out of use. Emma Shields, Cancer Research UK’s health information officer explains that healthcare professionals today do not advise ‘self-examination’.

‘The problem is,’ she continues ‘we know we know that a woman who self-checks is more likely to be diagnosed with something that’s not cancer, but they’re not more likely to have their life saved as a result of self-checking’.

And it’s not just the patients who struggle to diagnose skin cancer accurately. In the UK one in 10 melanomas aren’t diagnosed until they are in their “late stages”. This is a real problem because they are very often curable, but only if they’re caught early enough.

The winners of the James Dyson Award 2017 were announced at the Hangar in Dyson’s Malmesbury HQ | Photograph Alex Griffiths

Can the sKan solve that problem?

The team invented the sKan to make accurate diagnosis more accessible. Pending future testing, the inventors hope that one day their device could be used by healthcare professionals or by families in their homes. Because it is significantly cheaper than other similar early-diagnostic tools on the market, the sKan hopes to give people the chance of a quick, potentially life-saving early diagnosis.

Sir James Dyson, founder of the eponymous foundation, said that ‘by using widely available and inexpensive components, the sKan allows for melanoma skin cancer detection to be readily accessible by the many.’

He added, ‘it’s a very clever device with the potential to save lives around the world. This is why I have selected it as this year’s international winner.’ High praise indeed.

Early designs for the sKan show how simple their solution was

What does the sKan do?

Simply put, the sKan uses simple, low-cost temperature sensors and software to exploit a strange behaviour that melanomas exhibit when they are cooled. When melanoma skin is cooled, it regains its heat at a quicker rate than the skin surrounding it.

The four young students had been working on their fourth year final project of developing a product to assist with a medical problem in the world today. Their first plan was to create a posture control brace that supports your legs and feet to help with lower back pain. ‘It would have been very easy to do,’ they explain, adding ‘it was very achievable.’

However, after reading a research paper from John Hopkins which explained that the temperature of cancerous tissue behaves differently to its non-cancerous equivalent, they decided to start work on the sKan.

While there are already devices on the market that use similar information to diagnose skin cancer, they are very expensive alternatives. A Clinical infrared camera, for example, can cost upwards of $20,000 for a clinic to buy. Likewise laser scanners start at $50,000 and could even reach $100,000. Diagnostic equipment is often considered to be a secondary priority, the result of which is that diseases like melanomas are only discovered when they begin to present late stage symptoms — by which time it may very well be too late.

The four undergraduates Michael Takla, Rotimi Fadiya, Prateek Mathur and Shivad Bhavsar met with Sir James Dyson to show him their award-winning invention, the sKan | Photography Alex Griffiths

What next for the winners?

In short, they have a lot of work ahead of them. The FDA and pre-clinical trials of the sKan will require years of work. Bringing any product to market comes with its difficulties, but products with a medical purpose, whether they’re medicines or machines, require extra levels of scrutiny.

In their own words: ‘Winning the James Dyson Award means the world to us. The prize money will help us to continue developing a medical device that can actually save people’s lives. We are truly humbled and excited to be given this remarkable opportunity.’

For the designers of the sKan there is only one aim: to bring their product to the masses. But before then, they have ‘several technical improvements to make on the device that are only made possible because of the funding received from the James Dyson Award.’

‘We’d also like to develop the sKan to a level of performance where it can receive FDA approval,’ they explain. ‘From there we hope that it will become a tool family physicians use, alongside their visual inspection, to better detect melanoma. Of course we’ll also file for a patent.’

It’s safe to say that winning the James Dyson Award is just the beginning for the sKan team.

What is the James Dyson Award?

The James Dyson Award runs in 23 countries and invites student designers and engineers to compete for a £30,000 prize. It has been running since 2004 and is part of The James Dyson Foundation which aims to ‘encourage more people to take up a career in design engineering.’ Each competitor has to submit a design which solves a problem.

Who are the winners of this year’s James Dyson Award? They spoke with the JDF about their background and how they started working on their award winning design.

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 is a fast growing technology company. Employing thousands of engineers and investing £7 million a week on research and development means we have plenty to talk about. We want to share our most important news, stories, and issues as we develop the future of Dyson.

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Dyson is a fast growing technology company. Employing thousands of engineers and investing £7 million a week on research and development means we have plenty to talk about. We want to share our most important news, stories, and issues as we develop the future of Dyson.

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