According to the National Institute of Cancer, in 2009 there were 68,720 new cases of melanoma in the United States, 8,650 of which sadly ended in death. Seventy five percent of all skin cancer related deaths are due to melanomas, which, if diagnosed early enough, are a very treatable form of cancer with a good chance of full recovery.
Unfortunately, the only way of diagnosing melanoma has been through biopsy of suspicious moles or skin lesions. Currently diagnosis relies on the naked eye and patients themselves being aware of the changing shape, size and color of moles. The only way a dermatologist is able to fully diagnose melanoma is through invasive surgery.
Now, though, two researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) are optimistic that they have found a non-invasive solution to detecting melanomas using an infrared scanner.
Rhoda Alani, a skin cancer expert at JHU's Kimmel Cancer Center, teamed up with Cila Herma, a heat transfer specialist at JHU's Whiting School of Engineering, to conduct a pilot study involving 50 patients. Herman, used a $300,000 National Science Foundation Grant to fund the research.
Theorizing that cancer cells divide quicker than healthy cells, releasing more energy and therefore more heat, Alani and Herman looked for a method of highlighting this temperature change. They developed a prototype infrared scanner that manages to look at the miniscule temperature differential between healthy tissue and skin tissue with melanoma.
The research involved measuring the temperature of the skin, just below the surface. They cooled the skin with a 60 second blast of compressed air. When the cooling was complete they recorded infrared images of the area of skin for two to three minutes. They believed that any cancerous cells should reheat faster than the surrounding healthy tissue. In the study moles and lesions detected by dermatologists underwent the thermal scanning process and then as a follow up patients received a biopsy to confirm the results.
Although still in the testing phase they aim to use this research to develop a hand-held device for dermatologists to use in examining moles on their patients. Not only would this help for early diagnosis but it is a safe, painless and non-invasive procedure. It is their belief that many lives can be saved through early detection giving hope to the thousands of people affected yearly by melanomas.
“We, at this point, are not able to say that this is able to replace the clinical judgment of a dermatologist but we envision that this will be a useful tool in helping to diagnose early-stage melanoma,” said Herman.