A team of Canadian undergraduates made some noise at the 2017 James Dyson international engineering design competition. Michael Takla, Rotimi Fadiya, Shivad Bhavsar and Prateek Mathur from Electrical and Biomedical Engineering, McMaster University secured the top prize with their design of the “sKan”, a cheap and user-friendly skin cancer detection device.
You’ve probably come across one of Sir James Dyson’s inventions in your local public washroom. He’s the mind behind the Dyson Airblade hand dryer and his company, Dyson Ltd., brought in more than $2.5 billion last year. It’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about the importance of engineering design in inventions.
Dyson started his design competition 10 years ago to challenge young people to, “design something that solves a problem.” He praised the sKan, claiming it has the potential to save lives around the world.
Skin cancers like melanoma are currently detected by visual inspection of a suspected area, such as a mole, but this analysis is subjective, and often results in unnecessary biopsies. sKan, on the other hand, is based on thermal detection of cancer lesions.
Cancer cells are metabolically more active compared to healthy tissues, and as a result, cancerous lesions will warm up faster if the skin is cooled. sKan can successfully map this thermal difference using its grid of electrical resistors. This is essentially the same method as infrared imaging by thermography, but those instruments costs tens of thousands of dollars. In the current sKan prototype, there are sixteen resistors – each costing only $1!
Melanoma diagnosis can definitely use a boost. The Canadian Cancer Society estimated in 2017 that about 7,200 Canadians would be diagnosed with some type of melanoma during that year, with about 1,250 expected to die from it. We need tools to detect diseases like melanoma in their early stages and we need to do this accurately. Not only does this save lives, but also helps reduce the economic burden of expensive late-stage therapies and unnecessary biopsies.
So far, the sKan has been tested across synthetic samples in the lab, but Michael and his team are hoping to improve the calibration and sensitivity of their prototype to get it ready for commercial use. The McMaster engineers will use the $40,000 USD prize money to build a more advanced model and test melanoma skin samples from hospitals.