New cancer detection tool could slash need for biopsies

The last time you walked through a security scanner at the airport, you probably weren’t thinking about having a biopsy for skin cancer. But you might well do so next time. This is not because the scanners can cause skin cancer but rather, they use a technology that may help eliminate the need for some biopsies.

Airport security scanners use a technology known as millimetre-wave imaging. And a new study has demonstrated that the same technology can be used to scan human skin. Furthermore, those scans appear to be very good at identifying the difference between benign and cancerous skin spots.

The use of such technology could lead to a dramatic reduction in the need for skin biopsies, which leave painful wounds that can take weeks to heal. Statistical analysis reveals that about 30 benign lesions are biopsied for every case of skin cancer.

Read: Over-55s are driving a surge in skin cancer rates

Researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology, led by Amir Mirbeik Ph.D, are developing the new technology, which may not only halve the rate of unnecessary biopsies but also give dermatologists and other frontline physicians easy access to laboratory-grade cancer diagnostics.

The new technology has another major plus – its portability. The study used a tabletop version of the technology to examine 71 patients during clinical visits and found their methods could accurately distinguish benign and malignant lesions in seconds.

Mr Mirbeik and Negar Tavassolian, director of the Bio-Electromagnetics Laboratory at Stevens, were able to identify cancerous tissue with 97 per cent sensitivity and 98 per cent  specificity. This is a rate competitive with even the best hospital-grade diagnostic tools.

Read: Is it a lump or something to worry about?

The hospital-grade versions of the tool are “big, expensive machines that aren’t available in the clinic”, said Mr Tavassolian. “We’re creating a low-cost device that’s as small and as easy to use as a cell phone, so we can bring advanced diagnostics within reach for everyone.”

Even better, the technology provides virtually instantaneous results, meaning the procedure can be performed by a GP with a minimum of fuss. The millimetre-wave rays used in the tool harmlessly penetrate about 2mm into human skin, which provides a clear 3D map of scanned lesions.

Read: Drinking can increase your skin cancer risk by 20 per cent

Messrs Tavassolian and Mirbeik will next pack the diagnostic kit onto an integrated circuit. That step could soon allow functional handheld millimetre-wave diagnostic devices to be produced for as little as $100 a piece, providing technology that is not only a fraction of the size of existing hospital-grade diagnostic equipment, but also a fraction of the cost.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that such technology may one day be available to all of us on our very own smartphones.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz