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Virtual Biopsy in Development to Detect Melanoma

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(Alexas Fotos, Pixabay)

18 May 2018. An engineering professor in Colorado is developing a new process for diagnosing melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer that analyzes conditions in the skin without removing tissue samples. In April, Jesse Wilson, a researcher and engineering faculty member at Colorado State University in Fort Collins received a competitive grant from Melanoma Research Alliance to fund his work.

Wilson studies biomedical optics, particularly digital signal processing for diagnostics and pathology in cancer. In this new project, Wilson plans to apply advances in photonics to reveal key information in a person’s skin indicating the presence of melanoma cells. Detecting melanoma today usually requires taking a biopsy, a physical tissue sample of a person’s skin.

Melanoma is an aggressive type of skin cancer, which while not as common as basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, is more likely to spread to other parts of the body. American Cancer Society expects more than 91,000 people in the U.S. to develop melanoma in 2016, leading to some 9,300 deaths. If melanoma is caught and treated early, before it spreads or metastasizes, the 5-year survival rate is 92 percent. After the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, however, the 5-year survival rate drops to 13 percent.

In principle, says Wilson, current high-powered and ultra-short pulse lasers, like those used in Lasik surgery, could provide images with precision and clarity needed for diagnosing skin cancers like melanoma. But the equipment is expensive and the lasers can be dangerous for patients. Instead, Wilson proposes enhancing current laser microscope technology with digital signal processing techniques and artificial intelligence algorithms. The result, he says, will be clear biopsy images that far exceed the quality of images now returned by laser microscopes cleared for diagnostics by FDA.

“Right now there are a handful of virtual biopsy tools available in the United States,” notes Wilson in a university statement, “but the devices are imperfect because they produce grainy images that bear little resemblance to a traditional biopsy.” The new technology, says Wilson, will make it possible to more easily screen patients for melanoma than taking a tissue biopsy, reducing the need for tissue biopsies only to cases where there’s a high likelihood of melanoma. Virtual biopsies would also provide surgeons with more precise boundaries of tumors, making melanoma resection surgery more precise.

And the technology would not be restricted only to humans. Wilson is collaborating with colleagues at Colorado State’s Flint Animal Cancer Center that provides cancer diagnostics and care for pets. The goal is to devise laser-based techniques for analyzing suspected growths on a dog’s skin that can be compared to traditional tissue biopsies in a clinical trial.

Wilson is one of 15 recipients of young investigator awards from the Melanoma Research Alliance that aim to attract early career scientists with new ideas in the field of melanoma. While the exact amount of Wilson’s award was not revealed, young investigator awardees are eligible for grants of $75,000 a year for 3 years, for a total of $225,000.

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