University of Texas at Austin

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The image of cancer

There are more than 1.2 million cases of skin cancer in the United States each year.

Biomedical engineers at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a device that could reduce the need for biopsies that are performed to determine whether a growth is cancerous.

James Tunnell and his student researchers developed a pen-sized, light-based device for detecting skin cancers.

James Tunnell and his student researchers developed a pen-sized, light-based device for detecting skin cancers.

For every melanoma found, doctors perform approximately 50 biopsies. As a result, healthcare providers spend billions of dollars per year taking biopsies of benign lesions, not to mention the patient’s pain, scarring and reluctance to undergo the procedure.

The number of needless biopsies would be reduced by the device from the lab of Dr. James Tunnell, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering.

The pen-sized, light-based, non-invasive instrument sends weak pulses of light onto the skin or tissue. The pulses are recaptured by the probe and sent back to a computer system for analysis. The light measures the cellular and molecular signatures of skin cancer without the need for a biopsy or the excision of a tissue sample.

“Within a second, it can take a measurement and tell you whether or not it’s cancer,” Tunnell said. “And you can move the probe around quickly to different spots of the skin.”

The instrument has been licensed to DermDx Inc., a start-up company, and it is finalizing the design of the product and setting up clinical trials.

Once a device is on the market, it has the potential to both save lives and reduce morbidity from skin cancer.

This story appeared in the Playbook, a publication for fans at University of Texas at Austin football games.

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