Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering have developed a pen-like probe that encompasses three different light wave methods for assessing skin and detecting cancer.
"Skin is a natural organ to apply imaging and spectroscopy devices to because of its easy access," says UT biomedical engineering associate professor James Tunnell. "This probe that is able to combine all three spectral modalities is the next critical step to translating spectroscopic technology to the clinic."
Currently, dermatologists remove suspect beauty marks and screen them for cancerous cells by means of a biopsy in which they stain the tissue and examine it under a microscope.
The probe offers three common spectroscopic techniques that together reveal otherwise invisible information and present a complete picture of the skin's condition, according to Tunnell.
Enlargement of cell nuclei and the thickening of the surrounding epidermis are telltale warning signs followed by an increase in oxygen consumption and cellular disorganization.
At this point, Tunnell explains, light interacts differently with the skin.
Detection of the aforementioned progression depends on tracing the interaction of proteins such as hemoglobin, says Tunnell. It is also necessary to know the condition of chemical bonds found in connective tissues, fat cells and cell nuclei. Both of these methods are possible using the techniques offered by the probe.
In their paper describing the instrument, published
in the AIP Review of Scientific Instruments
, researchers note that for every case of skin cancer there are approximately 25 negative biopsies.
There can be no doubt that it's better to be safe than sorry, although the researchers estimate the costs of negative biopsies to the US health care system at $6 billion.
Pilot clinical trials are under way and researchers are raising funds that could bring the instrument to the market.