The average adult human has between 16 and 22 square feet of skin. This multifaceted organ serves a multitude of functions: from protecting our bodies against invaders and regulating body temperature to detecting sensations. Skin is particularly susceptible to developing cancer as a result of exposure to environmental carcinogens, such as ultraviolet radiation.
Identifying the signs of possible cancerous lesions on the surface of the skin is a particularly challenging task for dermatologists. In many cases, it can be difficult to distinguish a harmless mole from a dangerous melanoma. As a result, even highly skilled physicians with years of experience rely on invasive skin biopsies as part of their diagnostic procedures.
An imaging breakthrough, developed by bioelectromagnetics experts at the Stevens Institute of Technology, has the potential to allow dermatologists to rapidly and accurately catch skin cancer early without the need for invasive procedures. This work was published in IEEE Transactions on Medical Imaging,
In the U.S., almost 10,000 people are diagnosed with skin cancer daily, with more than two dying of the disease every hour. This project, spearheaded by Principle Investigator Negar Tavassolian, together with their postdoctoral fellow Amir Mirbeik-Sabzevari, has the potential of revolutionizing skin cancer diagnostics. The scientists estimate that as a result of this development, the number of unnecessary biopsies could be halved. “This could be transformative,” said Mirbeik-Sabzevari, adding, “No other technology has these capabilities.”
Skin is composed of three primary layers, namely the epidermis, the dermis, and the hypodermis. Tavassolian’s imaging system uses waves of between 30 and 300 GHz frequencies, which can penetrate to skin depths of up to 1.3 millimeters. This enables dermatologists to “see” what’s happening in the deeper layers of skin, looking for characteristic telltale changes associated with cancerous lesions.
The team studied over 20 skin cancer samples, including basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas from patients. With millimeter-wave imaging, they were able to obtain high resolution, 3-dimensional images of the skin, and easily identify cancer “hotspots” based on the reflectivity of the tissue. Cancer cells were much more reflective than normal, healthy tissue.
According to Tavassolian, their innovation has life-saving potential by allowing doctors to detect the early warning signs of cancer development quickly and easily. “That’s a major step forward toward our ultimate goal of developing a handheld device, which would be safe to use directly on the skin for an almost instant diagnostic reading of specific kinds of skin cancer – including lethal melanomas – based on their individual reflectivity signatures.”