OTC News Archive

Biomedical professor creates device that replaces biopsies

Cockrell School of Engineering
April, 2010

A new tool from biomedical engineering researchers at The University of Texas at Austin makes it easy and painless to quickly detect skin cancer, which as the most common form of cancer afflicts about 69,000 people in the United States each year.

For every melanoma found, doctors perform approximately 50 biopsies. As a result, healthcare providers spend billions of dollars per year taking biopsies of benign lesions, not to mention the patient’s pain, scarring and reluctance to undergo the procedure. Dr. James Tunnell had an idea for the solution: a less expensive, noninvasive, detection method that encourages patients to see their doctor for quick, affordable, painless exams.

“It is widely believed that the greatest achievement in cancer management is the early detection and treatment of the disease,” says Tunnell, assistant professor in the Cockrell School biomedical engineering department. “The next generation cancer management strategies require technologies that combine sensing, targeting, and treating of the earliest stage disease.”

Tunnell and his student researchers developed a pen-sized, light-based device for detecting skin cancers. He licensed the device to a startup company, DermDx Inc., and is currently conducting clinical validation studies of the technique. Over 100 patients have undergone the simple exam so far at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and UT Southwestern Medical Center, Austin Initiatives.

“I grew up on the coast, so I’m at high risk for skin cancer and keenly interested in developing ways to avoid all of the biopsies,” says Tunnell.

The device applied spectroscopy (optical or light-based) techniques used for decades in the laboratory to determine the chemical or biochemical composition of materials. Knowing biochemical changes in human tissue reveals disease, Dr. Tunnell adapted the technique to detect these changes.

What’s more, he recognized the large, slow, expensive, and complex equipment currently in medical use needed updating. The machines require specially-trained operators and specialized clinics. So after a few years of trial and error, he created an instrument that is small, fast, simple and appropriate for a doctor’s office.

Tunnell’s new cancer detection technique requires only a few seconds. Using a pen-sized probe, weak pulses of light are emitted from the tip onto the skin or tissue and then recaptured by the probe and sent back to a computer system for analysis. The light measures the cellular and molecular signatures of skin cancer without the need for a biopsy or the excision of a tissue sample.

“Within a second, it can take a measurement and tell you whether or not it’s cancer,” Tunnell said. “And you can move the probe around quickly to different spots of the skin.”

Following completion of the initial clinical trials of the technique, DermDx Inc. will conduct larger scale device trials and seek FDA approval. A commercial version of the device would then be marketed first in the United States.

Early funding for developing the device came from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation.

His collaborators on the project include Dr. Jason Reichenberg of the UT Southwestern, Austin Initiative; Michael Migden, MD Anderson Cancer Center; students Narasimhan Rajaram, Sam Lim, Sheldon Bish, and Brandon Nichols.

[ Cockrell ]