Skin cancer is both common and potentially deadly, with risks increasing the longer it goes undetected.
So it made little sense to Maryam Sadeghi that people can wait days, weeks or even months to find out if suspicious moles were something to worry about.
So she created MoleScope, a thumb-sized microscope designed to use with a smartphone to collect and manage images and, if necessary, send them to specialists to determine whether further examination or treatment is required.
"We can reduce unnecessary visits and provide better quality of care by giving priority to patients who need to have immediate access," says Dr. Sadeghi, who obtained her PhD in computing science from Simon Fraser University and is currently heading the Digital Health Hub, a Surrey-based innovation centre.
MoleScope is also designed to help users track and monitor their moles over time – a task that can be challenging if people have scores or even hundreds of moles.
When it comes to skin cancer, much relies on visual clues, which are perfectly suited to a system that allows users to send images to experts for analysis.
MoleScope is designed to provide high-quality images, remote diagnosis and patient management – qualities that would give it an edge over existing apps and services that may provide one or two of those attributes, but not all three, according to a MetaOptima presentation.
Dr. Sadeghi and fellow researchers developed the product with help from SFU's Venture Connection, which connects student researchers with business mentors and other entrepreneurial help.
In September, her company MetaOptima landed a $40,000 prize in the annual BCIC New Ventures Competition for MoleScope. It is currently still in the research and development stage but could hit the market as early as next year.
That market could be substantial. There are an estimated 6.3 million new cases of skin cancer each year. Worldwide, one person dies of melanoma – the deadliest type of skin cancer – every hour. Most of those cases – 70 per cent – are first diagnosed by patients or family members. With early diagnosis, the survival rate is 98 per cent. A late diagnosis cuts that to a 15-per-cent survival rate.
Over the past few years, Dr. Sadeghi and her fellow researchers talked to skin specialists about bottlenecks in the system and heard about busy clinics, long waiting times and travel costs for patients.
They also heard that doctors had no systematic, consistent way to manage images.
MoleScope software is designed to help consumers and doctors track and compare information over time – a particularly helpful feature for people who might be monitoring dozens or even hundreds of moles.
The system would dovetail with existing telehealth initiatives in B.C. and Alberta that are using technology to provide diagnostic and care services to people in remote locations in both provinces.
Currently, three doctors are testing the system to gauge the quality of images. Patient tests are expected to begin in 2014.
The MoleScope system could prove most useful in rural and remote areas that don't have ready access to skin specialists, says Vancouver businessman Hugh MacNaught, who helped mentor MetaOptima.
"In a way, it is an outreach from their medical practices," he says, adding that the biggest opportunity for MetaOptima might be in helping to "digitize" dermatology practices.
"Actually having a digital record and being able to quantify things and compare them over time – that speaks to a larger opportunity of creating a digital record."
The Wall initiative
It is more of an approach than an invention, but the Wall Solutions Initiative shares the age-old goal of most inventors: finding a new or better way of doing things. The project, funded by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, kicked off in 2011 and links University of British Columbia faculty members with community partners to develop research solutions – focusing on societal issues such as obesity, poverty and access to clean drinking water – that can be adopted by end users and, ideally, copied elsewhere.
In one such project, a UBC specialist in bone health is working with the City of Vancouver and the West End Seniors Network to study how redesigning spaces – such as the Comox-Helmken Greenway, with its benches and widened sidewalks – can improve the mobility and health of seniors.
In another, UBC Okanagan researcher Barbara Pesut is working with the Greater Trail Hospice Society and the Interior Health Authority on a rural palliative care project. It provides a "navigator" who helps patients and their families plan and manage end-of-life care. Currently, only between 16 and 30 per cent of Canadians who are dying have access to or receive hospice palliative care and the gaps are most pronounced in rural regions.
Initial funding of $1-million was for a three-year program but some projects may continue with other sources of funding or if the program is extended.
Editor's Note: Friday's print version of this article referred to a business mentor to MetaOptima as Hugh MacNault. In fact, the mentor's name is Hugh MacNaught. This online version has been corrected.