This low-cost sKan device creates a heat map of your skin to spot signs of cancer

A cheap, easy-to-use system for diagnosing melanoma skin cancer has won the international James Dyson Award, promising a way to save lives through early detection and save health services valuable resources.    

This low-cost sKan device creates a heat map of your skin to spot signs of cancer

The sKan device, created by four engineering undergraduates at McMaster University, Canada, works by measuring the temperature of a person’s skin. Cancerous cells have a higher metabolic rate than normal cells, which means that if an ice pack is pressed on the skin, for example, the cancerous tissue will regain heat quicker than the rest of the skin.  

sKan uses this property to identify potential cancers. Using an array of thermistors – known as a transducer – the device is able to convert heat differences into electronic signals, and create a heat map of a person’s skin after being cooled. These non-invasive temperature readings are then presented with a statement of findings about a presence, or lack of presence, of melanoma.

One of the most impressive aspects of the sKan system is its ability to display a heat map without the need for an expensive high-resolution thermal imaging camera. Because of this, the costs can be kept below $1,000 (£764).


“By using widely available and inexpensive components, the sKan allows for melanoma skin cancer detection to be readily accessible to the many,” says James Dyson. “It’s a very clever device with the potential to save lives around the world. This is why I have selected it as this year’s international winner.”

The team have been awarded £30,000 to develop the idea. The researchers say the prize money will go towards refining the product to a level where it can receive FDA approval and potentially be used across medical practices worldwide.

With 37 people diagnosed with melanoma every day in the UK, and an estimated 2,500 lives lost to the skin cancer in the UK every year, a cheap, non-invasive diagnosis tool has the scope to make a real difference in how the disease is discovered and dealt with. Runners-up for the award, each awarded £5,000, was an Italian project for a waste-free, 3D-printing robotic arm, and a German project for guiding injections using LED lights.  

The UK winner of the prize was engineer Ryan Yasin, 24, who designed a clothing range that “grows” with a child. Inspired by origami, the Petit Pli range takes advantage of a particular type of fabric that gets wider and thicker as it stretches, rather than thinner like a rubber band, for example. 

A so-called auxetic structure has been embedded into Petit Pli fabrics, giving the clothing what’s known as a negative Poisson’s ratio. This is caused by the way the internal structure deforms when pulled, becoming thicker perpendicular to the applied force. The clothes are designed to be outerwear, rather than everyday clothes. On his website, Yasin said all the garments have been tested and designed to be machine-washable and will dry easily. 

If you’re interested in cheap solutions to long-running medical problems, you can read a piece we published earlier this year about low-tech inventions saving lives in the developing world.

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