While it may not be the most high-profile form of cancer making headlines, skin cancer is considered to be the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in North America. Perhaps even more surprisingly, melanoma, which is considered to be the deadliest form of skin cancer, is also a leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., killing nearly 10,000 patients each year. At present, biopsies are the standard means of making a skin cancer diagnosis. However, the selection process for determining which lesions get biopsies is imprecise at best, leading to 1 case of skin cancer detected for every 25 negative biopsies, which wastes about $6 billion in healthcare bills each year in the U.S. alone.
However, thanks to a new development by researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, it may be possible to dramatically reduce the waste associated with negative skin cancer biopsies through the use of a novel optical device that could replace the need for diagnostic biopsies altogether.
Led by Dr. James Tunnell, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, along with a team of researchers, the new probe combines three unique uses of light to make precise measurements of skin tissue — an approach that has already bore positive results in preliminary clinical trials. The early results have led to interest from funding agencies, with the hope that the device can be fully developed and marketed to the dermatology industry.
The UT Austin-developed probe is not the first of its kind — there have been research and development efforts in the past aimed at combining spectroscopic techniques as a means of detecting skin cancer. However, previous efforts failed to combine multiple diagnostic approaches into one device in the the way that the researchers at UT Austin have done. The result is a prototype that is not only accurate, but also affordable in comparison to previous concepts.
The device itself combines three types of light detection: Raman spectroscopy, diffuse reflectance spectroscopy and laser-induced fluorescence spectroscopy — the three of which combine to give physicians a complete assessment of a skin lesion.
“Skin is a natural organ to apply imaging and spectroscopy devices to because of its easy access,” Tunnell said, as quoted in a UT Austin press release.
The probe itself is similar in size to pen, and the spectroscopic and processing equipment it is connected to is easily transported from room to room. In addition to being effective, relatively small, and comparably affordable, the probe also works quickly, taking only about 4.5 seconds to perform a scan.