The Cancer Screening That Runs on Your Smartphone

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A new screening technology makes checking for oral cancer as simple as snapping a photo with your smartphone.

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Stanford University

What if you could find out if you've got oral cancer just by turning on your cell phone camera? That's what Manu Prakash, a bioengineer at Stanford University, hopes to achieve with OScan, a new device designed for inexpensive use in developing countries.

OScan is as an attachment that fits over the camera of a mobile phone. It works by shining a blue fluorescent light into a patient's mouth, a process that causes tumors to show up as dark spots on the resulting image. The screening is fast, painless, and doesn't require a Ph.D to carry out. When the procedure's complete, the pictures can be uploaded instantly to off-site medical professionals for analysis and diagnosis.

In a country like India -- where oral cancer makes up an astonishing 40 percent of all cancer cases and is the foremost type of cancer among men -- a low-cost device that can be operated by untrained workers could see immediate payoffs. Like many forms of cancer, oral cancer is easily treated if it's caught early -- but effective screening simply isn't available to many ordinary Indians. In rural parts of the country, there's only one dentist available for every 250,000 individuals.

But it's not just the developing world that may benefit from this type of screening. British researchers in 2010 noticed a recent explosion in the rate of mouth cancers brought on by the human papillomavirus (HPV) in both the United States (a 22 percent rise from 1999 to 2006) and the U.K. (a 51 percent jump from 1989 to 2006). Oral screenings are already performed in the developed world as part of normal check-ups, but OScan would give ordinary consumers a way to do it themselves.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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