APSC grad student wins award for work on low-cost melanoma detection device

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Prateek Mathur, a master’s student in biomedical engineering at UBC, has received the 2017/2018 BC MEDTECH Graduate Award in Biomedical Engineering. Endowed by the BC Medical Devices Association, the award is intended to recognize UBC biomedical engineering graduate students with “an entrepreneurial spirit, an interest in the local biomedical engineering industry and demonstrated leadership and communication skills.”

Mathur is the co-founder of PRSM Medical, a start-up that is currently developing a low-cost handheld melanoma detection device called the sKan. Created with three classmates as part of his final-year undergraduate capstone project at McMaster University, it went on to receive international attention after the team won the 2017 James Dyson Award, a $50,000 global student design prize whose recipients are selected by Dyson himself.   

To determine whether or not a suspicious skin lesion should be biopsied, physicians inspect the lesion by eye, usually with the help of a low-powered magnifying tool known as a dermatoscope. The sKan, which is equipped with inexpensive temperature sensors called thermistors, would help reduce human error during this process by using thermal differences that exist between melanomas and healthy skin, not visual characteristics, to evaluate cancer risk.

In addition to improving diagnostic accuracy, the sKan would be just a fraction of the cost of commercially available devices in this space, which can range from $25,000 to over $100,000 — an investment that few family physicians are willing to make. What's more, by reducing the incidence of unnecessary biopsies (only a small proportion go on to indicate the presence of cancer), the device may also play a significant role in reducing healthcare costs.  

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Canada, and of all skin cancer-related deaths, melanoma skin cancer accounts for the vast majority. Skin cancer is also one of the most preventable types of cancer, making the need for cheap, non-invasive early-detection devices like the sKan all the more urgent. Currently part of The Forge, McMaster’s tech incubator, PRSM Medical is working to improve the resolution and sensitivity of its device before testing it in pre-clinical trials.

“[B]y using widely available and inexpensive components, the sKan allows for melanoma skin cancer detection to be readily accessible by the many,” said Sir James Dyson. “It’s a very clever device with the potential to save lives around the world.”

Recipients of the $1,400 MEDTECH Graduate Award are selected by the Faculty of Applied Science in consultation with the Faculty of Graduate Studies.