Ofir Aharon was working on his doctorate in electro-optics seven years ago when his mother was diagnosed with melanoma, a common type of skin cancer that can be deadly.
“She could have detected the melanoma before it became cancerous, but she missed a doctor appointment,” Aharon, now 45, said in a phone interview with the Times of Israel.
That got Aharon thinking about why the cancer was not detected in its earlier stages, which would have helped his mother recover quicker from the disease. She’s fine now, by the way.
Skin cancer is an abnormal growth of cells in the skin that mostly develops on areas of the skin that are exposed to sun rays. The disease affects people of all colors and races. If diagnosed and treated early, skin cancer is one of the easiest forms of cancer to cure. When allowed to progress, it can result in disfigurement or death.
More than 5.4 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer were treated in over 3.3 million people in the US in 2012, the most recent year statistics were available, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, and more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the US than all other cancers combined.
When Aharon set out to study the subject he found that the instrument most commonly used by dermatologists to detect the cancer in patients, the dermascope (also called the dermatoscope), which consists of a magnifying glass together with a light source, is insufficient.
“The dermascope magnifies lesions in terms of colors only,” said Aharon. But lesions are evident below the skin even before the surface of the skin changes color, he said.
Aharon has created a handheld device that works together with software that he says can identify moles or lesions even before the skin color changes.
“It is important to be aware of the distortions below the skin,” he said. “It is hard to catch this kind of distortion, especially when it is not pigmented.”
The technology developed by Aharon, called DOSI, or Differential Optical Spectro-Polarimetric Imaging, takes a deeper look at the interaction of light and tissue and detects changes in the way light penetrates the tissue when there is a distortion of the tissue — as happens when a cancer is developing or a cosmetic problem starts to emerge, explained Aharon.
The technology takes a picture of the lesion or the mole using three kinds of lightwaves – red, green and blue. Aharon’s algorithm then analyzes the differences in the interaction between the light and the tissue, detecting abnormalities.
“The light that is scattered back from the tissue to the camera changes, enabling us to see small changes in the tissue,” he said. “The algorithm we have developed can quantify and measure these changes. Our DOSI scan is a map of changes. It has nothing to do with color but says something about the underneath distortion.”
“In this way you can see even the smallest of changes in the tissue,” he added.
In preliminary clinical studies at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, DOSI had a 100 percent detection rate in 77 skin lesions. A proof-of-concept study of 139 lesions, held at three clinics in Jerusalem, one in Rome and one in Texas, showed the technology was 92% accurate in its ability to diagnose “not cancer” and 100% accurate in detecting cancer.
The company Aharon co-founded with Gabi Mizrachi, Shy Zyman and Shlomi Swisa, Scade Medical, wants to become the gold standard in diagnosing skin lesions for the early detection of cancer, he said. His patented technology aims to become an additional aid supporting dermatologists in their work, and later on for use in every home, he said.
Today, with a regular dermascope, it is the dermatologist who is the “eyes and the brains” behind the analysis of skin lesions said Dr. Leon Gilead, the medical director of Scade and a dermatologist at Shaare Zedek Medical Center who specializes in skin cancer and skin cancer surgery.
“Their ability is limited, in terms of analyzing a multitude of signals at the same time,” he said.
“Only dermatologists who specialize in dermoscopy get a good percentage of accurate diagnoses,” he said, with results often ending up as false positives, or at times, in worse cases, malignant lesions that go undetected.
“Our device is using the power of artificial intelligence to analyze and compare much more information derived from the dermoscopic images of the lesions to supply the dermatologist information which was thus far unavailable to support his clinical decision,” he said. “It is an added instrument that will help us make more precise and correct decisions.”
The device, named the BlueSky, is a working prototype and Scade Medical is now starting to raise up to $4 million in a Stage A funding round to help create the final product – the hand-held device together with the software – and guide it through regulatory approvals in Europe and the US.
The round B funding will concentrate on working on artificial intelligence pattern recognition and an insurance reimbursement plan, Aharon explained.
He hopes the product will be ready for sales within two years after completing the Round A funding.
At the initial stages the end users of BlueSky will be dermatologists, he said, but eventually the company aims to get the machine into every home – either via the BlueSky device or a mobile phone app with the DOSI technology.
“At the end of the day we want to see the scanner at homes around the world,” Aharon said. “We want to catch the lesion before it deteriorates into cancer.”