14-Year-Old Creates Low-Cost Cancer Detection Platform Combining 3D Printing, Robotics, Computer Programming


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Devin Willis

Whoever said that kids are the future was pretty smart. Now that 3D printing technology is much more readily available in schools, libraries, and makerspaces, we’re seeing young, innovative minds making waves in many areas with their creative and sometimes life-changing ideas. We’ve recently heard about 13-year-old 3D printing fashion designer Ariel and 10-year-old 3D Hub owner Calramon, for example; now I’d like to introduce you to 14-year-old Devin Willis, whose groundbreaking 3D printing and robotics invention could potentially save a lot of lives. The Florida teenager from Boca Raton developed a machine that could help improve the early detection and diagnosis of cancerous tumors.

The A.D. Henderson University School freshman is a top 10 finalist in the Discovery Education and 3M Young Scientist Challenge, which recognizes students in grades 5-8 who develop inventions and ideas that can help solve issues around the world, and Willis’ cancer detection invention, which he actually thought up at the age of 11, certainly fits the bill.

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

His SLIDEMAP machine combines computer programming, a low-cost robotics platform, and 3D printing technology. Willis created special computer algorithms that can determine if a tumor is benign or cancerous – it basically automates and simplifies the tedious work of cancer-detecting pathologists, or histopathologists, who spend all day studying slides of tumors. So the machine will be able to increase not only the speed, but also the accuracy of cancer diagnoses.

Willis explained, “I’m getting the video stream from this microscope camera. And it’s connected to this computer. 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.”

Willis has been building the invention from scratch since he was in the sixth grade – he completed all of the electrical work, mechanical work, and the computer programming. He beat out thousands of other students from around the country to make it to the top 10 of the Young Scientist Challenge; the judges chose his invention based on criteria such as creativity, scientific knowledge, and effective communication.

If he wins, he’ll get a $25,000 prize and, perhaps most importantly, a coveted spot among actual cancer research scientists; pretty impressive for a 14-year-old, not to mention one who’s also attending school and working as a summer camp instructor. But he says that all of his hard work is worth it.

“I think what stands out most of all is his tenacity,” said Joel Herbst, Devin’s mentor and assistant dean at Florida Atlantic University‘s (FAU) College of Education. “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.”

Herbst’s daughter, also an A.D. Henderson student, won the Young Scientists challenge back in 2015, so this actually marks the first time in the history of the 3M competition that two finalists have come from the same school.

What makes the SLIDEMAP even more impressive is its cost: most cancer detection machines run around $250,000, but the SLIDEMAP, at only $1,500, is less than 1% of that.

Herbst said, “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. He’s focused on helping others and that’s really the difference maker.”

Willis will continue to develop his prototype this summer, with the help and guidance of a summer mentorship program with a 3M scientist. Then, he’ll be ready to head to Minnesota and compete in the final round against the other finalists this October. His 3M scientist mentor said he was “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,” John Henderson, 3M Senior Product Development Engineer in the Automotive Aftermarket Division and Willis’ scientist mentor, wrote in an email to WPTV. “In one elegant bundle of technology, Devin’s invention automates this detection step and could also improve diagnosis accuracy. 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.”

“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.”

If Willis wins, he could receive a patent for his SLIDEMAP invention, which he hopes will be able to improve healthcare standards around the world by delivering faster, more affordable and accurate cancer diagnoses, especially in developing countries.

Willis said, “I can further develop my project with the help of actual scientists.”

In addition to competing for the top spot in the Young Scientist challenge, Willis is also working to complete his high school diploma and his college bachelor’s degree in bioengineering — both of which he hopes to graduate with by the age of 18.

You can check out the WPTV video to learn more about Devin Willis and his SLIDEMAP invention. We wish him the best of luck, and hope to see his invention joining the ranks of other cancer detection systems developed with 3D printing technology. Discuss in the Cancer Detection forum at 3DPB.com.


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