Software-based service could identify cancerous moles

3 min read

Sunbathers worried about potentially cancerous moles on their skin may have a remote assessment in 24 hours using a new software-based online tele-dermatology service developed at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).

The inventor Jonathan Blackledge, a professor at DIT, said his Moletest software relies on fractal geometry, which looks at how small pieces of a structure reflect the structure as a whole.

Anyone interested in using the Moletest service simply needs to log onto the website, upload a 5-megapixel or better image of a suspected mole, pay £40 and send it off to a central server and analysis software program located in Bournemouth. Within a day the customer will be given a result under one of three categories: red, green or amber.

Red indicates the mole is likely cancerous and the customer should see a GP immediately and request a biopsy; green means the growth is likely benign. An amber result encourages the customer to have the mole checked again in a few months’ time.

Blackledge sees the site as a huge opportunity to reduce stress on the cash-strapped NHS as GPs are frequently bombarded with patients asking to examine moles that are often benign. It also could lead to earlier detection for those usually too frightened or busy to see a GP.

The software was developed by Blackledge with help from Prof Rino Cerio, a consultant dermatologist from the London and Barts hospitals, and other skin cancer specialists.

Its processing capabilities use fractal geometry to analyse a mole’s texture, which is key for determining skin cancer. 

Blackledge said a benign tumour will tend to be smooth and its boundary will be fairly regular in a circle or elliptical shape.

‘If you look at an active tumour, two things stand out,’ he said. ‘One is the boundary tends to be quite irregular and that is because it is active and growing in a particular direction. It doesn’t grow omni-directional. And at the edges of that boundary you tend to see a sort of reddish tinge – the capillaries can’t come through. It’s like water up against a barrier.’

Blackledge said the surface is also rough or textured – something dermatologists would notice by placing a finger on it.

‘So the way fractal geometry kicks in at this point is to find a fractal dimension of the boundary and fractal dimension of the surface and when these values increase so does the likelihood of it becoming a melanoma,’ he added. ‘The expert system takes those two parameters and many others as well.’

Blackledge said current high-resolution image capturing systems in digital cameras and even mobile phones are what makes this sort of remote analysis technology available now.

‘If we launched this, say, 10 years ago, the vast majority of digital cameras, particularly on phones, would be so poor we wouldn’t have a hope in hell’s chance of getting any decent quality,’ he said.

The software has been tested with 1,500 images and the results have been cross-checked with expert dermatologists. Blackledge said the goal is to cross-check 5,000 images to give an official determination of the software’s accuracy. He claimed results so far show it is just as good as any dermatologist.

The Moletest website is a global service that can analyse up to 1,500 images a day. For the time being, Blackledge said any photos sent to the site will also be vetted by a consultant dermatologist.

‘The interesting thing is the more images we have the better the system gets because the better the expert system becomes,’ he said. ‘All the images at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, will be checked by a dermatologist and then there’ll be such a time when they’ll say we can’t improve upon this.

‘But even after that decision has been made there will be spot checks from time to time as a sort of an audit on what the system is giving by our consultant dermatologist team.’

According to Cancer Research UK, there are two main types of skin cancer: the more common non-melanoma skin cancer and malignant melanoma which is rarer but more serious.

The charity says figures are incomplete, but more than 84,500 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer were registered in 2007. But it is estimated that the actual number is at least 100,000 cases in the UK each year.

More than 10,300 cases of malignant melanoma are diagnosed in the UK every year.