OTC News Archive

UT researcher makes skin cancer detection breakthrough

July 20, 2009

With temperatures over 100 degrees, we’ve all been trying to stay cool in Austin. But what have you been doing to protect your body from the sun?

It’s a startling fact, but every hour in this country someone is dying from skin cancer.

Detection is crucial and some of the brilliant minds at The University of Texas have come up with an invention to take the pain out of skin cancer detection.

53-year-old Bruce McGraw of Austin found out he had skin cancer after his wife insisted he see a dermatologist.

“She had noticed I had some new spots, some moles or some pigmentation and that’s a sign you need to get checked. Of course, I didn’t want to come in,” McGraw said.

It wasn’t the moles on his chest but a mole on the back of his leg, the size of a pen mark, that concerned his dermatologist, Dr. Lisa Rhodes. A biopsy was performed. It turned out to be melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. McGraw says he’s glad his wife made the appointment because she probably saved his life.

According to Dr. Rhodes, melanoma is on the rise.

“Melanoma is becoming more prevalent and we’re starting to see more of it in our clinics. It’s the most common in patients between the ages of 25 and 29,” she said.

You can blame it on the sun but we’re to blame, too. Doctors say we’re simply not doing enough to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Because of that, millions of cancer-checking biopsies are performed every year. The skin sample is sent to a lab and you wait a few days to find out the results.

That can be nerve-wracking. That’s why some biomedical engineers at The University of Texas mapped out a plan to invent a device that uses light to detect skin cancer without a biopsy.

Dr. James Tunnell, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UT, and a group of graduate students have been working on the scanning device for three years.

BusinessWeek magazine is calling it one of the top inventions of the decade. This “optical” biopsy was developed to detect or rule out skin cancer while you wait in your doctor’s office.

Dr. Tunnell says, “The low accuracy of the current method of just doing visual inspection leads to a lot of the unnecessary biopsies which has a huge cost associated with it. So each biopsy costs something on the order of $350. So, if you have six to ten million of these that are done that you could have potentially avoided, you quickly get up into the billions of dollars that are being spent that you can hopefully avoid.”

One of the research assistants working with Dr. Tunnell on the project is graduate student Naras Rajaran.

“With this one, we are hoping that, we can like take a lesion that’s on your forearm, we can place it there, shoot it, look at it on the computer, and give you an immediate diagnosis and tell you, this is not cancer or this is cancer,” Rajaran says.

And that’s potentially good news for patients and doctors.

McGraw believes the device will prompt more people to go to the doctor.

“People might be less fearful to come in, if they didn’t think people were going to be cutting on them,” he says.

Rhodes says if the product works the way it’s supposed to, it would be revolutionary.

“Having something like that, you’re not going to biopsy quite as much, which is great because patients don’t like getting biopsies, don’t like having procedures, there’s an increased risk for scarring. So if you could tell something before having to cut, that would be great, and anything that helps us find melanoma early will increase survival rates and so that’s terrific,” he says.

Clinical studies are being performed with the new machine in Austin and at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. After that, it will require federal approval before doctors can purchase them and have them in their offices to use on patients.

Right now The University of Texas has licensed the technology to a California company so the probe can be fully developed. If and when the government approves it for commercial use, both the university and the inventors will benefit from the profits when the device is sold.