International James Dyson Award goes to affordable melanoma detector

9 Nov 2017

The sKan device. Image: Alex Griffiths

A team of engineering students that built an affordable, handheld melanoma detector has won the 2017 international James Dyson Award.

With 132,000 instances of melanoma cancers occurring globally each year, a new device developed by four Canadian-based engineers that can cheaply and accurately detect cancer on a person’s skin has won this year’s international James Dyson Award.

Called the sKan, the device works on the fact that cancerous cells have a higher metabolic rate than normal cells, thereby producing more heat.

When the cells experience thermal shock – such as when an ice pack is placed on the skin – cancerous tissue will regain heat more quickly than the non-cancerous tissue, indicating a strong likelihood of melanoma.

By incorporating an array of accurate and inexpensive thermistors, the sKan is placed on a part of the skin that shows potential signs of melanoma and then tracks its return to ambient temperature after being cooled.

Team sKant

The sKan team from McMaster University, Canada. From left: Prateek Mathur, Shivad Bhavsar, Rotimi Fadiya and Michael Takla. Image: Alex Griffiths

Once the results are digitised, they 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.

This is considerably cheaper than existing melanoma detection methods that use high-resolution thermal imaging cameras that can cost a five-figure sum, whereas this treatment could cost less than $1,000.

SKan device

The sKan device in action. Image: Alex Griffiths

Speaking of why he decided to award the sKan team the grand prize, worth $40,000, as well as $6,000 for McMaster University in Canada, 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 sKan team added that it was “humbled and excited” by the honour and will use the funding to continue development of the device, with the aim of getting FDA approval.

The runners-up

Two other projects were selected as runners-up with a prize of $6,000 each: Gabriele Natale from Milan, Italy, and Tina Zimmer of Köln, Germany.

Natale’s Atropos device is a six-axis robotic arm, able to 3D print using continuous fibre composites material to produce high-performance objects. In doing so, the device helps solve the problem of current high-performance 3D-printing tools wasting large amounts of material.

Zimmer’s Twistlight uses LED lights in a diagnostically relevant way to guide a needle for vein puncture clearly into the tissue. Despite being the most common form of medical procedure in the world, 33pc of attempts fail at the first try.

The Twistlight can be used single-handed so the other hand can undo the vein strap, tension the skin and fix the catheter in place when pulling out the steel stylet.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic