Detecting skin cancer just got a little easier

Determining whether or not that suspicious-looking mole on your skin is melanoma could soon take a matter of seconds, without any pain from a biopsy. On January 31, MIT's Technology Review journal reported on a new handheld device that could help dermatologists save lives.

Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, still requires a dermatologist examining moles to decide whether or not to biopsy. For patients whose melanoma isn't caught early, the life expectancy is less than a year, states the article.

A new device, dubbed Verisante Aura, is held above a mole and uses a technique called Raman spectroscopy, which distinguishes the vibrational states of various molecules, picking up on concentrations of molecules characteristic of melanoma.

The device, being developed by scientists at the British Columbia Cancer Agency, is undergoing another round of clinical trials after a successful first round. The licensing company, Verisante, states it aims to complete a production prototype of Verisante Aura by April 2011, with commercial units ready for sale by September 2011.

The device could also be used in the future by non-dermatologists, such as in rural areas where skilled dermatologists are scarce.

At Frontiers in Optics last October, an annual meeting of international optic scientists in Rochester, New York, experts presented another new technique that may help doctors spot melanoma. To visually inspect the surface of a patient's skin, doctors not only use the naked eye but a handheld lens, bright light or microscopes, and a technique called dermoscopy. But recent studies have found that diagnoses based on these images are often problematic, because only the skin's surface is visible, and the dangerous changes lurking beneath can't be detected.

The best way to diagnose melanoma, said Thomas Matthews, researcher at Duke University in North Carolina, is still a biopsy. But even then, doctors often disagree on the diagnosis. False positives drive up healthcare costs and inflict unnecessary treatments on patients; false negatives can be fatal.

Matthews and his colleagues at Duke are adapting a laboratory imaging technique to provide new information about suspicious moles, both on live tissue and from biospies. Skin contains two kinds of pigments, or melanins, and studies suggest that changes in the ratio of these two pigments may signal when a harmless mole has become malignant. Matthews uses a two-photon microscopy technique that pumps a very small amount of energy into the pigments, similar to a laser. He then watches the energy redistribute to give high-resolution images of their distributions in a spot of skin. With further research, the scientists hope this technology could be used to avoid biopsies altogether.

Read more about the Verisante Aura:

To see a melanoma slideshow and learn about risks and treatment: