Maryam Sadeghi, research scientist, entrepreneur, and inventor of the MoleScope.

A digital app to fight cancer

By Caitlin Dawson

Maryam Sadeghi (PhD’12) has seen the future of health care, and it is digital.

“Everything will be easier to use and access and less expensive for patients,” she says. “So you can either watch others make it happen, or dive in; be the pioneer and others will follow.”

Sadeghi – research scientist, entrepreneur, and inventor – took a running jump and dived into the deep end.

By day she is director of the Digital Health Hub at SFU’s Surrey campus, a partnership between SFU, the City of Surrey, and Fraser Health aimed at helping academics and researchers create commercialized health care products. By night, she is CEO of digital health company MetaOptima, which she founded in 2012 as a new graduate with her husband and fellow SFU alumnus Majid Razmara (PhD’13).

Her foray into health technology entrepreneurship stemmed from the simple premise that even student projects can become marketable products with real-world clinical applications. The 34-year-old was a PhD computing science candidate specializing in medical imaging analysis when she started working closely with skin cancer patients and specialists at the BC Cancer Agency. In addition to stories of long wait lists and busy clinics, she heard some striking skin cancer statistics.

“When melanoma skin cancer is caught in the early stages, the survival rate is 98 percent, but when it’s advanced, it drops to just 15 percent,” she says.

Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, frequently resembling or developing from moles. It’s also the most frequently misdiagnosed, often mistaken for innocent moles or other less serious skin complaints.

“Also, in 70 percent of cases, skin cancers are found by patients themselves or a family member, not a doctor. But when they see a noticeable change like rapid growth or bleeding, it can already be too late,” she says.

Sadeghi soon realized the most powerful weapons against skin cancer are awareness and early diagnosis.

“We give all the tools to doctors, but statistics show that patients find the skin abnormalities in the first place,” she says. “If you want to provide early diagnosis, you need to empower patients.”

Sadeghi and a team of SFU and UBC computing science students had already launched UV Canada, a popular skin cancer prevention app that helps people track skin-cancer-causing ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The app, donated to the BC Cancer Agency but still maintained by Sadeghi’s team, has more than 70,000 users. Her next idea, however, would push patient empowerment a step further, by putting the doctor’s tools in the patient’s hands.

“Doctors simply use a manual magnifier plus a light, or they look at a digital image to diagnose skin cancer,” she says. “I thought we should create a low-cost version of the doctor’s tools and give this to patients.”

Three years of research and development, several prototypes, and a swarm of media interest later, MoleScope launched in early 2015 (currently only available for pre-order).

Like many of the best ideas, it’s both simple and revolutionary. The MoleScope device is a smartphone-attachable mini-microscope. Its accompanying app helps users monitor, record, and assess potentially cancerous skin lesions. It’s easy to use: you simply place the device on a mole and take a photo, and it instantly appears on the app, magnified and enhanced. This not only helps patients track their moles over time, it also identifies crucial features not visible to the naked eye.

It may come as a surprise to learn that growing up in Iran Sadeghi didn’t yearn to become an entrepreneur, or a computing scientist for that matter. Instead, she wanted to follow her father, an architect and interior designer, into the world of applied arts. “My dream job was to be a graphic designer, but I studied computer engineering because in Iran being a female engineer is considered very valuable.

“We learn that if you want to have the same rights as men, you have to fight, and being accepted in positions dominated by men is a real achievement.”

The MoleScope device attaches to your smartphone, allowing you to perform fast and reliable mole checks from home.

With her trademark drive and persistence, Sadeghi did fight, and succeeded – earning a Bachelor of Science in computer engineering at the Iran University of Science and Technology (where she met her husband). After graduating, she landed a job in a traffic control research lab analyzing images from CCTV cameras. There she realized that in the field of image processing she could combine her skills in computing science and graphic arts.

“I love working with colour images,” she says. “You can be creative and develop your own algorithm to retouch or enhance the image and play with pixels at a scientific level.” In fact, like an artist examining paint on canvas, Sadeghi thinks a magnified image of a mole is fascinating in itself. “The relationship I have with my work and with what I see is very important,” she says. “To me, these images are not ugly or scary.”

Sadeghi made the transition from analyzing traffic to analyzing skin after a 10,000-kilometre journey from Tehran to Vancouver, where she relocated to begin her doctorate after her husband embarked on a master’s degree at Concordia University in Montreal. Here, she met Stella Atkins, her PhD supervisor, mentor, and now MetaOptima science advisor. She began exploring the world of medical image processing and connected with specialists at the BC Cancer Agency as a Skin Research Training Centre Scholar. Despite feeling out of her depth at first (“I almost fainted during my first clinical placement – I had never really seen blood before”), she soon realized that she enjoyed working with and helping people.

Sadeghi’s creative vision, technical skills, and leadership abilities have not gone unnoticed. A string of awards and scholarships followed her PhD research, among them SFU’s Dean of Graduate Studies Convocation Medal (2013) and the Canadian Image Processing and Pattern Recognition Society (CIPPRS) Doctoral Dissertation Award (2012). In addition, MetaOptima netted a $40,000 Wavefront Wireless Prize (2013) and top prize at the Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize competition (2014).

Tim Lee supervised Sadeghi at the BC Cancer Agency. If he could choose one word to describe her? “A visionary,” he says. “She makes complex things simple and easy. Not only does she see the market needs and understand the technology, she also requires a clear vision to sustain her idea. She has a bright future.”

Atkins agrees: “ Maryam is formidable and is absolutely driven in her non-stop enthusiasm to make a success of everything she does.”

Atkins says she did not anticipate Sadeghi’s post-PhD move to being an entrepreneur since she was such a natural academic. But, says Atkins, her “self-assurance and obvious high intelligence” were evident right away. Astonishingly, in December 2014, Atkins used MoleScope to discover that one of her own moles was a melanoma. Within a week, the mole was successfully excised by a surgeon before it had spread.

Sadeghi believes SFU’s vision of the engaged university helped her achieve her full potential, both in academia and in business. “Studying at SFU was the best time of my life,” she says. “I had the chance to work with physicians, clinicians, patients, and many scientists. I don’t think I could have had that opportunity anywhere else.”

This gives her pause for thought because things almost turned out very differently. In 2008, Sadeghi had been at SFU for a few weeks when she received, and accepted, a scholarship for a PhD program in traffic image analysis in Florida.

“It was a very tough time for me,” she explains. “I had a lot of citizenship and immigration costs, and my husband was on the other side of the country. I got this scholarship offer and at the time I felt like I had no choice but to take it.”

Despite having missed SFU’s entrance scholarship deadline, Sadeghi decided to take one last shot. She explained her situation to the manager of academic services with SFU’s School of Computing Science. “Within two hours, I had an offer with a contribution to stay,” she says. “Every single time I receive an award, I remember that moment I decided to stay, and it was because of the support I received from SFU.”

Grateful for the past, but looking toward the future, she already has her next project in sight: to create mobile health solutions that make life easier for people with Alzheimer’s. “I saw a documentary about a lady who had Alzheimer’s and I was so touched,” she says. “That’s how I make decisions; if I see it’s touching people’s lives. To me, the definition of success is self-satisfaction and that comes with seeing that I make a difference.”

Photography by Hamed Shahir; MoleScope rendering: Ivan Klyuzhin; Diagrams: MetaOptima