McMaster Students Win International Award for Skin-Cancer Detector

Four biomedical engineering graduates from McMaster University have won $50,000 for building a low cost, handheld device that can diagnose melanoma.

The skin cancer detector is called sKan and the team behind the device was selected from more than 1,000 student-led projects from 23 countries for the annual James Dyson Award. The competition challenges university students to design something that solves a problem.

The McMaster students chose melanoma. In Canada, skin cancers is one of the 10 most common cancers diagnosed, but the average wait time to see a specialist for treatment is 20 weeks.

Michael Takla, one of the four students, said he and his classmates learned how melanoma can be removed easily when detected early, but can rapidly become dangerous if undiagnosed–something that is far too common. However, quicker detection options aren’t always available or affordable.

“Our research showed that temperature can be used to detect melanoma. But the way it is tested today is through infrared cameras that many family doctors just can’t afford,” said Takla.

While these high-end thermal imaging cameras are a non-invasive option compared to a skin biopsy, they can cost upwards of $50,000.

To tackle this problem, the team came up with sKan, a small device that uses heat detection to identify cancerous cells on the skin. Although it is in early development, the device is expected to cost less than $1,000 and deliver the same results as the expensive thermal detectors currently on the market.

“Our goal was to make a low cost version of the infrared cameras that can be used by family physicians or even the general public so there is more early detection; that’s the real cure to skin cancer,” said Takla.

The sKan prototype is a skin temperature sensor developed by the McMaster engineering students.

It’s the second time in the award’s 13-year history that a Canadian team has taken the top spot as the international winner, selected by James Dyson himself.

Dyson is most known for building the $4-billion vacuum company. The students were flown to the Dyson headquarters in Malmesbury, U.K. to meet with the inventor and show him the potential for the skin cancer detecting device.

Takla said meeting Dyson reaffirmed the recent graduates mission to create something meaningful and validated that they were on the right track.

“By using widely available and inexpensive components, the sKan allows for melanoma skin cancer detection to be readily accessible to the many,” said Dyson in a statement. “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.”

Michael Takla, Shivad Bhavsar, Rotimi Fadiya and Prateek Mathur (L to R) met with James Dyson at the Dyson HQ to show him how the sKan works.

The sKan team is hoping to bring the device to market, using the $50,000 prize to reiterate and refine the product, start pre-clinical testing, and hopefully secure FDA approval.

The device was the fourth-year students final design project at McMaster in 2017, and won $10,000 from Hamilton incubator The Forge at a startup pitch competition earlier this year.