New Probe to Detect Skin Cancer Receives More Funding for Clinical Trials

Aug. 18, 2008

AUSTIN, Texas — Assistant Professor James Tunnell has been awarded a Phase II Early Career Award from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation to continue the development and testing of a device that uses light to detect skin cancer without the need for an invasive biopsy procedure.

The $260,000 grant will support Tunnell's work for the next two years to refine the device called a "clinical spectrometer" and to conduct additional clinical trials. He previously received one of 23 Phase I awards from the foundation, and was one of seven Phase II awards selected from that pool to continue his research.

Using a pen-sized probe, weak pulses of light are emitted from the tip onto the skin or tissue and then recaptured by the probe and sent back to a computer system for analysis.

"Within a second, it can take a measurement and tell you whether or not its cancer," Tunnell says. "And you can move the probe around quickly to different spots of the skin."

The light measures the cellular and molecular signatures of skin cancer without the need for a biopsy or the excision of a tissue sample.

"It can tell if the structures of the cells and the biochemicals present are associated with the progression of these cancers," Tunnell says. "Many biopsies and surgeries would be unnecessary if you had a device that could catch the cancer earlier and identify the margins of where it exists."

Skin cancer is the most common cancer globally. In the United States, more than one million new cases occur annually, according to the National Cancer Institute.

So far, the device has been tested on 80 people in clinical trials at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and with The University of Texas Medical Branch clinicians in Austin. A total of 300 people will be screened at those institutions using the device.

"The early results look very promising," Tunnell says.

The fiber probe, he says, is small enough to fit inside an endoscope, making it adaptable to also detect esophageal cancer. Tunnell says it could take three to five years for commercialization if it's deemed commercially viable.

Collaborators on the project include: Tri Nguyen, director of the Mohs Micrograph and Dermatologic Surgery Clinic at M.D. Anderson, and Jason Riechenberg, clinical director for dermatology at The University of Texas Medical Branch.

Learn more about Tunnell's research at the Biophotonics Laboratory and in "Engineers Shed Light on Biotechnology" from the Winter 2008 issue of UTexas Engineers magazine. Also, read about Tunnell's nanoparticle cancer research.

For more information, contact: Daniel Vargas;  James Tunnell, Biomedical Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering College of Engineering, 512-232-2110.