OTC News Archive

UT device could take the pain out of skin cancer detection

Device is being commercialized with help of $500,000

By Mary Ann Roser, Austin American-Statesman
February 4, 2009

A pen-size device that might one day be used to detect skin cancer without a biopsy is being developed at The University of Texas at Austin with the aid of grants and a company hoping to bring the device to market.

The scanning device, reminiscent of the tricorder that Dr. McCoy waved over his patients in the “Star Trek” TV series, “is looking very promising,” said Sampath Srikanth, president and CEO of DermDx of Fresno, Calif., the company that hopes to get the device on the market in about five years.

James Tunnell, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UT, received $500,000 in grants from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation of Miami, which funds research in biomedical engineering. Tunnell, who credits most of the work to UT doctoral candidate Narasimhan Rajaram, said UT shares in the rights and any future profits with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Tunnell did post-doctoral work.

At MIT, Tunnell worked with emerging technology that used light to detect cancers of the esophagus, cervix, and oral cavity. His device shines light through an optical fiber to scan the skin.

“What the physician holds is like a pen, and it’s connected to a cable that’s attached to an instrument that’s about the size of a mini-refrigerator,” Tunnell said. “But you could shrink that mini-refrigerator down to a desktop computer.”

The computer measures the light’s intensity—cancerous moles absorb light differently than noncancerous lesions.

The device still needs Food and Drug Administration approval, and competing devices are vying to be first in dermatologists’ offices. Some use light; others use ultrasound or sound waves, Srikanth said.

It costs $25 million to develop such a medical device, he said, but the company thinks its product has an edge because unlike some others that need interpretation, the results are instant and objective.

“From the patient’s perspective, we eliminate the pain and the wait time,” Srikanth said. “There’s a lot of anxiety to finding out if you have cancer.”

Tunnell’s team is developing readings for various types of skin cancers. Based on preliminary data involving 80 patients, a dermatologist has a 68 percent chance of detecting a squamous cell skin cancer with the naked eye compared with the device’s 91 percent, said Dr. Jason Reichenberg, associate program director for dermatology with The University of Texas Medical Branch in Austin and a project collaborator.

For basal cell skin cancer, the doctors were right 89 percent of the time versus 86 percent for the device—a difference Tunnell called a sign that the equipment corresponds well to a doctor’s predictions.

[ Austin American-Statesman ]