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OPG employee has big dreams for award-winning skin cancer detector

 OPG employee has big dreams for award-winning skin cancer detector

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​It has been a whirlwind year for Michael Takla, an Engineering and Applied Science Trainee with OPG.

In May, the recent McMaster University graduate started his new job with OPG’s Plant Engineering Services in Niagara region. A few short months later, he and three fellow McMaster undergraduates were on a plane to the U.K. to accept the 2017 James Dyson Award and a $50,000 prize for their low-cost, non-invasive melanoma detection device – dubbed The sKan.

“We were really surprised to win because there were so many cool projects,” said Takla, a 23-year-old electrical and biomedical engineering grad. The Canadian team's idea was selected from over 1,000 entries from 23 countries in the international contest, which celebrates the next generation of design engineers.

“The Dyson engineers liked the simplicity of the device and the fact it actually tries to solve a problem. We were shocked, surprised, and humbled by the win.”

OPG's Michael Takla (right) with three other McMaster University grads.
OPG's Michael Takla (far right) and his team of three other McMaster University students.

​The innovative handheld concept, which started as a final-year class project, promises to detect melanoma by monitoring the heat emissions of cells in the skin. As cancer cells recover more quickly from a cold shock than the healthy skin around it, the device’s heat map can provide confirmation of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Takla and his partners, Rotimi Fadiya, Prateek Mathur, and Shivad Bhavsar, looked at current practices of detecting skin cancer and found there was an opportunity for improvement. Melanoma, if detected early, can be easily removed, but it can be lethal if it’s overlooked.

Currently, early diagnostic methods for melanoma rely heavily on visual inspections, which can be inaccurate. This is then followed up with a biopsy of a suspicious mole, which involves cutting out a piece of skin for testing. Thermal imaging diagnostics and infrared cameras are available, but they can cost between $10,000 and $200,000, far too expensive for family physicians.

The sKan aims to solve this problem, offering a quantitative, second source of melanoma detection for under $1,000, Takla said.

“We hope that it can be a tool used in any family doctor’s office, and eventually even in the home,” he said. “We want it to be so easy to use that anybody can run a test with it and a doctor can then assess it. Hopefully, it can be part of a regular check-up.”

“It's a very clever device with the potential to save lives around the world,” said James Dyson, one of the three judges who chose The sKan as the best idea out of 20 finalists. Dyson is himself an industrial designer best known for inventing the bagless vacuum cleaner.

Takla, who focused on developing the software for the device, says the prize money will be used to further develop the prototype and get it ready for use in preclinical trials.

In the meantime, the young engineer has been busy getting acclimated to his new role at OPG.

Working with the Protection and Controls Engineering team in Niagara, Takla has been working to integrate control systems for sluice gates so hydroelectric operators can open and close them remotely from the Saunders control centre in Cornwall.

As an Applied Science Trainee, he will be learning a lot over the next two years as he does three-month rotations in Thunder Bay, Renfrew, and Timmins, before returning back to Niagara.

But he’ll also be making time with his team to refine The sKan and patent the device. It’s a pet project that has received a great response from his OPG colleagues.

“It’s now something I work on in the evenings,” Takla said. “It’s nice to have great projects to focus on at work, and then have another life to work on this. Everyone at OPG has been very supportive.”