A 17-year-old’s science fair project, which uses a computer “brain” to diagnose breast cancer with nearly 100 percent accuracy, has taken the top prize at the Google Science Fair and may eventually lead to a revolutionary diagnostic tool for the deadly disease.
Brittany Wenger of Sarasota, Fla., walked away from the second-annual fair with $50,000 in scholarships, a trip to the Galapagos Islands and more, but her real prize may be in a bright future, in which she hopes to combine computers with a career in oncology.
For her entry, Wenger wrote a breast cancer-diagnosing app based on a neural network, or a computer program designed to detect patterns in data too complex for human brains or other programs to diagnose.
Wenger used three commercially available networks, through cloud technology, as well as one she programmed herself using Java, to test fine needle aspirate tests from several breast cancer patients. The neural networks analyzed the data and learned to diagnose breast cancer based on the characteristics of the fine needle aspirate samples. The student said her own network was the most accurate, giving correct diagnoses for 94 percent of the cases and correctly identifying more than 99 percent of the cancer cases.
She is hosting the app, “Cloud4Cancer” online so doctors can enter their own data, which she says will make it work better. Wenger believes her app can be used in neural networks to diagnose other cancers as well.
The teen wants to major in computer science and work as a pediatric oncologist. While her invention hasn’t been picked up by any major medical companies, the work could become another example of the increasing ways mobile technology is being used to diagnose and cure deadly diseases.
Wenger is still young, and is coming in early in the mobile health field, where most innovations come from small companies who are trying to get a single device to market. However, experts say the mHealth market will grow a great deal by 2015, and today’s mHealth device manufacturers and app developers will grow as well into larger, more successful ventures capable of putting out several new devices and apps every year, and perhaps will gain the power to put more pressure on federal regulators to keep pace.
In addition, while Wenger discovered some very interesting trends through her research and programming, it’s still at the science fair level, meaning it’s years away from being approved by federal officials, if it ever is. She’s already obviously a gifted student, though, and one whose research may become key as the mHealth industry grows.
However, the FDA released preliminary guidelines for medical apps just last year and expects to release more guidelines later in 2012. The agency only oversees apps that directly impact diagnoses and treatment, so Wenger’s cancer-detecting app would be subject to regulatory approval before it becomes commercially available.
However, the science fair winner’s entry shows that not all of today’s youth see computers as just something fun to access Facebook on, or to play games, but as devices that can be used in lifesaving ways one day.