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Alex Mariakakis snaps a selfie with BiliScreen.

Cell phone photos can be good for more than an ego boost. With a new app from a University of Washington team, selfies can detect signs of pancreatic cancer. Researchers from the Ubiquitous Computing Lab alongside UW clinicians have created Bili-Screen, which uses a phone’s camera to capture images of the whites, or sclerae, of a person’s eyes. The software picks up on yellow discoloration, a marker of jaundice and high levels of bilirubin in the blood—in turn a sign of a particularly pernicious form of cancer.

Jaundice is one of the few visible expressions of pancreatic cancer, which has a survival rate of just 9 percent. A clinical study released in August found that BiliScreen measures bilirubin levels with 90 percent accuracy, meaning it’s catching symptoms of pancreatic cancer in the early stages. “We’re trying to fill in the gap where a person can’t see jaundice, but it’s clinically relevant for diagnosis,” explains Alex Mariakakis, a doctoral student and lead author of the study. 

The good news for patients is that the app can be used before the standard screening tool, a blood test; what Mariakakis calls invasive: “It costs money…it’s a pain in the butt.” 

Your typical bar-lit selfie won’t work, though. BiliScreen users must shoot in a 3D-printed box to control lighting or don a specially designed pair of paper glasses to calibrate ambient colors. 

“I’m not a super emotional guy,” says Mariakakis, “but when you get emails from people who’ve been affected by pancreatic cancer every day, it starts to get real.”

The app is awaiting approval by the FDA before it’s released into the wild, a process researchers expect to take two years or more. Instagram likes for your cancer screening will have to wait. 

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