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Boca Raton teen's invention could help improve early detection, diagnosis of cancer

Posted at 3:56 PM, Jun 29, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-29 19:08:35-04

A South Florida teenager just might be on the verge of a groundbreaking development in cancer research.

At just 14-years-old, he hopes his invention will be used to improve early detection and diagnosis of cancerous tumors.

Devin Willis, a freshman at  A.D. Henderson University School in Boca Raton, said he came up with this idea when he was 11.

And three years later, he's now a finalist in the prestigious Discovery Education and 3M Young Scientist Challenge. The competition recognizes students, in grades 5th through 8th, who develop ideas and inventions that solve global issues.

Devin is in the top 10, narrowed down from thousands of students across the country. If he wins, he gets $25,000 and a spot among scientists in cancer research.

This summer, Willis is juggling being a summer camp instructor and saving the world.

"It's worth it,' he said. "This consumes most of my time!"

He's talking about a SLIDEMAP, special machine that has become his young life's work.

"The goal of my project is to increase the accuracy and speed of my diagnoses using a low-cost robotics platform," he explained.

Combining 3D printing technology with computer programming, Devin has created a machine that automates and simplifies the tedious work pathologists do to detect cancer. The computer algorithms he created are able to distinguish a tumor as cancerous or benign, increasing accuracy and speed of diagnoses. 

"I'm getting the video stream from this microscope camera. And it's connected to this computer," he said as he demonstrated his creation. "It would take multiple images and then stitch those images together -- basically auto-detect what a pathologist would find in a tissue sample -- and give them a map on where to look on the slide."

Since he was in the 6th grade, he's built this invention from scratch.

"All the electrical, the mechanical and the programming," he said.

And his inspiration for the idea runs deep.

"A few years ago my grandfather died from lung cancer. And my dad is a cancer researcher. And I do a lot of robotics. So I wanted to help solve that problem," he said.

3D printers have become popular in the last few years. Devin's mentors said it's an untapped market and he's applying it to the medical field.

"I think what stands out most of all is his tenacity. It's been an ongoing project and even when he has hit barriers or failed during the process he continues to pick himself up and find different solutions," said Joel Herbst, Devin's mentor and assistant dean at FAU's College of Education.

Herbst's own daughter, Hannah Herbst, won the 2015 Young Scientists competition and attended the White House Science Fair. She is also a student of A.D. Henderson, the first time ever in the 3M competition for two finalists to come from the same school.

Cancer detection machines cost up to $250,000 but Devin's invention is less than 1 percent of that.

"One of the biggest issues we wrestle with not only in our country, but worldwide, is that of cancer and the need for significant cancer research -- I think Devin sees that as a need and has created something incredibly unique," said Herbst. "He's focused on helping others and that's really the difference maker."

Devin hopes his invention will improve the healthcare standards across the world by enabling faster, more accurate and affordable diagnoses, especially in developing countries.

With guidance from a 3M scientist through a summer mentorship program, Devin will continue to perfect his prototype and compete against the nine other finalists in October.

John Henderson, Devin's 3M scientist mentor, said he was so impressed with a clever solution to a problem he didn't realize existed.

"Cancer diagnosis is a manual process, so it can take a while before a patient receives their biopsy results to learn if they need treatment. In one elegant bundle of technology, Devin's invention automates this detection step and could also improve diagnosis accuracy," Henderson said in an email to WPTV. "On top of that, his device is much lower in cost than existing alternatives, which reduces the barrier for developing countries to improve standards of care."

Henderson added, "I am most excited to work with Devin because I immediately related to the way he attacked one of the world’s biggest problems. I have a background in mechanical engineering, and electronics and computer programming are among my personal hobbies, so I look forward to collaborating with him this summer."

Devin heads up to Minnesota this October to take part in the final phases of the 3M competition. If he wins the Young Scientist Challenge, he could get a patent to make his innovation a reality.

"I can further develop my project with the help of actual scientists," he said.

According to 3M, past winners and finalists have gone on to receive patents, give TED talks and make the Forbes 30 under 30.

To top this all off, he's also in the process of completing both his high school diploma and his college bachelor's degree in bioengineering.

He expects to graduate with both degrees when he's 18.

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