Handheld device could identify skin cancers without a painful biopsy

HOBOKEN, N.J. — A new handheld device could help spot skin cancer without the need for a painful biopsy. Scientists at the Stevens Institute of Technology say the new tool could cut unnecessary biopsies in half and make it easier for doctors to screen for the disease.

In recent years, the number of biopsies performed on American Medicare users has grown around four times faster than the number of cancers detected. On average, the study finds that doctors take a biopsy from around 30 benign growths for every one that turns out to actually be cancerous.

The process, during which doctors carve away small bits of tissue for lab testing, leaves patients with painful wounds that sometimes take weeks to heal. The new device uses millimeter-wave imaging, which airport security scanners also use, to scan a patient’s skin.

Healthy tissue reflects the waves differently than cancerous tissue, allowing doctors to see cancer. To make the technology fit for clinical practice, the researchers used algorithms to fuse signals captured by different antennas into a single ultra-high-bandwidth image. This allows the high-resolution images to detect even the tiniest mole or blemish.

A portable cancer screening device for just $100?

The rays harmlessly penetrate around two millimeters into human skin and the technology gives doctors a 3D map of scanned lesions. In real world clinical visits by 71 patients, a tabletop version of the technology accurately distinguished between benign and malignant skin lesions in just a few seconds.

The device could identify cancerous tissue with 97 percent sensitivity and 98 percent specificity, a similar rate to most hospital-grade diagnostic tools. The tech delivers results in seconds, meaning it could one day take the place of a magnifying dermatoscope to give accurate results at check-ups almost instantly.

Now, the researchers want to pack the team’s diagnostic kit onto an integrated circuit. This step could soon allow manufacturers to create functional handheld millimeter-wave diagnostic devices for as little as $100 a piece — a fraction of the cost of existing hospital-grade diagnostic equipment. The team hopes to bring their product to market within the next two years.

“We aren’t trying to get rid of biopsies, but we do want to give doctors additional tools and help them to make better decisions,” says Dr. Negar Tavassolian in a university release.

“There are other advanced imaging technologies that can detect skin cancers, but they’re big, expensive machines that aren’t available in the clinic,” says Tavassolian. “We’re creating a low-cost device that’s as small and as easy to use as a cellphone, so we can bring advanced diagnostics within reach for everyone.”

“The path forward is clear, and we know what we need to do,” Tavassolian concludes. “After this proof of concept, we need to miniaturize our technology, bring the price down, and bring it to the market.”

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.

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