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UT Developing Skin Cancer Detection Tool

Updated: Friday, August 29 2014, 08:18 PM CDT

Your chances of getting skin cancer keep going up. This year nearly five million people will be treated. Many more will have biopsies to see if a suspicious mole is cancerous. And, that's where a University of Texas researcher at the Cockrell School of Engineering thinks he can save people time, money and discomfort. 

Dr. James Tunnell is leading a team of researchers in designing what they describe as a noninvasive, fast, comprehensive and lower-cost way to detect melanoma. For some patients the skin cancer detection tool could be a more appealing alternative to biopsies.

Spend a day on the job with Laurie McGary and you'll see why the Austin realtor was routinely exposed to the sun's most harmful rays.

"I had a freckle and it started to grow," said McGary.

A biopsy revealed the worst.

"It is melanoma and it is malignant and it has spread," said McGary.

But after surgery on her leg, McGary calls her scar the "Victory Z".

"I'd much rather have a scar than lose my life or lose a leg or something," said McGary.

Dr. Tunnell, an Associate Professor in UT's Department of Biomedical Engineering, has lost count of his biopsies.

"I get them all the time," said Tunnell.

He knows he could one day face McGary's same diagnosis.

"I have family history of melanoma," said Tunnell.

The threat of skin cancer was a catalyst in the creation of the probe.

"It looks like little harmless rays of light," said Tunnell

Harmless, but illuminating.

"This device allows you to have a diagnosis without having to take a biopsy," said Tunnell. "I think I would go to the dermatologist a lot more if I knew I wasn't going to cut on every time that I went."

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. Diagnosing it can be tricky.

"So there are 20 biopsies for every one melanoma that's found and there are some studies that say it's even up to 50 to 1," said Tunnell.

Tunnell says his skin cancer detection tool could eliminate the need for unnecessary biopsies. Instead of removing the skin lesion, the light would shine over it.

"The whole measurement takes just a few seconds," said Tunnell

The screening tool would then analyze changes to the way the light interacts with the skin tissue. Tunnell and his colleagues combined Raman spectroscopy, diffuse reflectance spectroscopy and laser-induced fluorescence spectroscopy to create a more complete picture of a skin lesion. The device provides information invisible to the human eye. A recent study of its effectiveness was revealing. 

"It showed us that we could diagnosis melanoma with perfect accuracy," said Tunnell.

The researcher says in addition to being faster and noninvasive, using the device could also be less expensive for patients. Tunnell says the total cost for a biopsy runs around $300.

"There are estimates it (the new device) would cost a fraction of that," said Tunnell.

McGary's incision from her surgery to remove a melanoma tumor is still healing.

"With vanity and everything, people do get worried about scars and they hate pain and they don't want any stitches," said McGary.

All reasons why she's hoping that, eventually, when a doctor tests a mole to see if it's melanoma it will be a beam of light, not the cut of a knife, that makes the diagnosis. 

"I think it's going to make a big difference," said McGary.

The next step is starting a two year study of several hundred patients to see if the new device can continue to provide patients with an accurate skin cancer diagnosis. If you would like to participate, call 512-324-1000 ext. 89612. Patients from this database will be contacted once the skin cancer screening begins.

By Bettie Cross

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UT Developing Skin Cancer Detection Tool

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