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Skin Scan wants to fight cancer using iPhones and big data

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Skin Scan, a startup based in Bucharest, Romania, is selling an iPhone app that lets consumers take pictures of questionable moles and get back information on the likelihood that the mole in question is dangerous. However, during a discussion with Skin Scan’s founders at IBM’s (s ibm) SmartCamp competition on Thursday (where Skin Scan was among nine finalists), I found out the company has much grander goals than helping consumers figure out whether to see a doctor.

On its surface, Skin Scan’s app operatesas one might expect: users take a picture of a mole; the photo is sent to Skin Scan’s servers; Skin Scan’s algorithm analyzes the image; and results are sent back to the user. The app won’t diagnose any condition, but will visually point out abnormalities and will rate moles from low-risk to high-risk. It also refers users to nearby doctors. It’s Skin Scan’s mobile delivery model that makes it so potentially valuable, though.

As co-founder and CEO Victor Anastasiu explained to me, the company is building an analytic database to help make sense of the information it’s uncovering. Using users’ location data, for example, Skin Scan can map the world based on frequency or severity of lesions. Over time, Anastasiu said, Skin Scan should be able to determine how rates are improving or worsening, which is important because skin cancer is often best analyzed over time.

Building time-space models based on mobile data is nothing new, of course. Companies such as Google (s goog) and Apple (s aapl) are already using anonymous location data to map traffic flows, and another SmartCamp finalist, BitCarrier, is peddling a system to city governments that lets them see traffic flow in real time based on wireless location data and react accordingly.

But Skin Scan has grander plans than even a database. Mircea Popa, another Skin Scan employee, brought up the possibility of disrupting the dermatology system as a whole. One of the company’s next steps is to digitally connect doctors and users via its platform. If doctors can examine patients’ moles without in-person visits, it saves everybody time and money. For offices that are particularly overbooked, Popa thinks Skin Scan could get them to the point where they see only the most-serious cases via office visits.

These are long-term goals, though. For now, Skin Scan is working to gain enough users to get its algorithms as accurate as possible (they’re about 70 percent accurate in assessing severity, Anastasiu said, compared with about 85 percent by dermatologists) and to build a meaningful global data set. Whether or not Skin Scan succeeds, though, its ambitions should resonate with others who want to effect change by leveraging the global reach and broad accessibility of mobile devices.

6 Responses to “Skin Scan wants to fight cancer using iPhones and big data”

  1. This was done already by a medical company in Australia almost ten years ago. The problem is that it is well known you are going to get limited success with standard images. Even with 5 years of research we never got better than a junior doctor at detecting Melanoma. The concern about this kind of application is that Melanoma can be deadly and that it requires a trained medical professional. Would you risk your life to an application on an iPhone? Has this software been certified by the FDA in America or CE Marked in the EU? Selling medical software without this is illegal.

    It took 5 years of intense research by top mathematicians and world class dermatologists on a 40K device and they couldn’t do it reliably. I don’t see how this kind of application will fare any better.

    Do the right thing and seek a medical professional.

  2. Janet Fogarty

    I was going to download it and promote this but the most recent reviews on iTunes show that it isn’t working well enough yet. Hoping they are fixing the bugs? I couldn’t find anything addressing this on their site or blog.

  3. At $5, they’re really hurting the chances of this app being much of a success. They’d do themselves a huge favor by dropping the price drastically or going free – if they truly want to gain a database that will be statistically significant and meaningful, and not just trying to make a quick buck. The reviews don’t look all that positive, however.