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Invention may replace skin cancer biopsies

July 5, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Diagnosing skin cancer means doing a biopsy: cutting into the skin to take a sample, and waiting for results. A new invention could radically change how doctors find and diagnose skin cancer and skip invasive biopsies. Four years ago, Brendie Keane started seeing the warning signs.

"My eyes were starting to change, and I noticed that I had a new mole on my face," said Keane.

A visit to the dermatologist confirmed her worst fear. That mole was melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.

The only way to confirm skin cancer is to cut off a skin sample and send it to a lab. Then, patients wait for days for results.

"You have to numb it, take it off, take a piece of skin. So, it's invasive," said Dr. Darrel Ellis, a dermatologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

But a new machine being tested by researchers at Vanderbilt University could make biopsies history.

A laser light illuminates the cellular structure of the skin, seen through a microscope lens.

"It allows us to see the different layers of the skin," explained Ellis.

It scans the chemical analysis of the skin and compares it to a database stocked full of chemical signatures linked to known cancers. It could bring results to a patient in minutes, which could mean years.

"Melanoma, if you catch it really early, like they did for Brendie, then that person has close to 100 percent survival," Ellis said.

"Being five years out and safe, you know, it makes you appreciate your health," said Brendie.

Skin Cancer:

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, affecting approximately 1 million people annually. The easiest way to recognize skin cancer and the possible formation is a change in skin appearance such as color or soreness. Doctors say if there is a new growth that has appeared and will not go away, this is also a sign of the possible formation of skin cancer. The three different types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Melanoma is the most serious form of the three.

To diagnose skin cancer, doctors must do a biopsy, or take a sample of the skin and send it to a lab to be processed. It can take more than a week for the patient to get results. According to the American Cancer Society, as many as 80 percent of biopsies for some types of cancers come back negative.

Treatment:

There are four main types of treatment for people who have skin cancer: Surgery (which also includes dermabrasion and laser surgery), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and photodynamic therapy (which uses a drug and a certain type of laser to kill cancer cells). A new type of treatment, called biological therapy, is being tested in clinical trials. With biological therapy, doctors use the patient's immune system to fight the cancer.

Diagnosing skin cancer without biopsy:

Researchers say they are working on an invention that could radically change how doctors find skin cancer. It is a hand-held, non-invasive cancer scanner that diagnoses skin lesions on a patient. The handheld scanner uses a lens to look at a patient's skin, but instead of illuminating the skin with normal white light, the device uses laser light. The laser light is used to form an image of the skin's cellular structure, and it monitors the way a patient's cells change the reflected laser light. Doctors say those changes can tell them the chemical composition of the skin cells.

Doctors would then compare that chemical signature to a database containing the chemical signatures of known cancers to see whether the patient's cells are cancerous. The device would be able to tell if a patient has a form of skin cancer within minutes.

The project is funded by a five-year grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, part of the National Institutes of Health.


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