Pancreatic cancer has one of the worst prognoses – with a five-year survival rate of nine per cent – in part because there are no telltale symptoms or non-invasive screening tools to catch a tumor before it spreads.

Now, University of Washington researchers have developed an app that could allow people to easily screen for pancreatic cancer and other diseases — by snapping a smartphone selfie.

BiliScreen uses a smartphone camera, computer vision algorithms and machine learning tools to detect increased bilirubin levels in a person’s sclera, or the white part of the eye. The new app is described in a paper presented at Ubicomp 2017, the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing.

One of the earliest symptoms of pancreatic cancer, as well as other diseases, is jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. The ability to detect signs of jaundice when bilirubin levels are minimally elevated – but before they’re visible to the naked eye – could enable an entirely new screening program for at-risk individuals.

In an initial clinical study of 70 people, the BiliScreen app – used in conjunction with a 3-D printed box that controls the eye’s exposure to light – correctly identified cases of concern 89.7 percent of the time, compared to the blood test currently used.

‘The problem with pancreatic cancer is that by the time you’re symptomatic, it’s frequently too late,’ explained lead author Alex Mariakakis, a doctoral student at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

‘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.’

BiliScreen builds on earlier work from the UW’s Ubiquitous Computing Lab, which previously developed BiliCam, a smartphone app that screens for newborn jaundice by taking a picture of a baby’s skin. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics showed BiliCam provided accurate estimates of bilirubin levels in 530 infants.

In collaboration with UW Medicine doctors, the UbiComp lab specializes in using cameras, microphones and other components of common consumer devices – such as smartphones and tablets – to screen for disease.

The blood test that doctors currently use to measure bilirubin levels – which is typically not administered to adults unless there is reason for concern – requires access to a healthcare professional and is inconvenient for frequent screening.