Leading eye experts set out to make smartphones capable of predicting skin cancer

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Some of Australia’s leading eye experts, led by Professor Minas Coroneo AO, have started a study of a novel, prototype smartphone-based tool for assessing ultraviolet (UV) damage to the eye, which can be an early predictor of skin cancer.

Professor Coroneo and his team were the first to pioneer conjunctival UV autofluorescence (CUVAF) to assess early UV-related ocular damage. CUVAF refers to measuring the fluorescence area in the conjunctiva (the clear membrane covering the white part of the eye) in response to UV exposure.

This new tool is a specially designed UV-light camera attached to a smartphone's existing camera. It allows the phone to take CUVAF-standard images that pick up any damage to the eye, like the existing, less portable, desktop-sized version of the CUVAF device. The image is then analysed by an app on the smartphone that calculates damage to the eye.

If successful, this pocket-sized CUVAF solution would mean anyone from children to adults could very quickly adopt a routine of checking their eyes to detect changes or track the progression of existing conditions.

UV radiation is responsible for various diseases, including skin cancer and eye diseases. These conditions impact millions of Australians.

This solution would be particularly relevant in Australia, which has some of the highest levels of UV radiation in the world, where an Australian is diagnosed with melanoma every 30 minutes. While another 50 are diagnosed with UV-related cataracts every day.

Professor Minas Coroneo AO, from the Department of Ophthalmology at Prince of Wales Hospital, said, “Despite the magnitude of the problem, there are currently no readily available, objective means of assessing the ocular UV damage an individual may have. Current solutions for documenting personal UV exposure include a questionnaire recording sun-safe behaviour, or a UV sensing smartwatch that relies on individuals wearing a device that can only measure their daily or monthly UV exposure levels.

“Our team was one of the first to document that the UV-related conditions affecting the eye, such as pterygium (tissue growth onto the cornea) and one type of cataract, could be an early sign of skin cancer, decades before its manifestation.

“To address this growing need, we developed the optical add-on that can be retrofitted to everyday smartphones. The aim of our research is to validate this pocket-sized device against the gold-standard benchtop-sized device. The outcomes will allow us to establish the efficacy and functionality of the technology, paving the way for scaling availability of the device, thereby improving health outcomes nationally and internationally,” said Professor Coroneo.