Tech & Science

A virtual biopsy device can detect skin cancer painlessly

The device, developed by scientists at Rutgers University, uses sound vibrations and light pulses instead of a scalpel.

Image: Rutgers University

Image: Rutgers University

New advances in medicine are occurring at an amazing rate. Now, a painless non-invasive biopsy device that was developed by scientists at Rutgers University in New Jersey can diagnose skin cancer.

The researchers found a way to use sound vibrations and near-infrared light pulses in a virtual biopsy device that detects, measures, and determines whether a skin lesion is cancerous without using a scalpel.

This ability to find and analyze skin tumors without surgically removing them could make biopsies much less risky and painful for patients, according to a new study published in Wiley Online Library in May 2019.

Currently, surgeons who perform biopsies don't know the full extent of the lesion or if the patient will need plastic surgery until after the biopsy has begun. Afterward, the patient has to wait for the biopsy results to see if the lesion is malignant. The new device eliminates all these factors.

In an experimental procedure called vibrational optical coherence tomography (VOCT) a 3D map of the lesion's width and depth under the skin is created with a tiny diode.

The prototype device also uses soundwaves to determine the lesion's density and stiffness (cancer cells are much stiffer than healthy cells). A small speaker applies the soundwaves against the skin to measure the vibrations.

“This procedure can be completed in 15 minutes with no discomfort to the patient, who feels no sensation from the light or the nearly inaudible sound. It’s a significant improvement over surgical biopsies, which are invasive, expensive and time consuming,” Frederick Silver, the lead researcher of the study and professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said.

The researchers tested the device for over six months on four skin excisions and on eight volunteers that did not have any skin lesions. The device was able to distinguish between healthy non-cancerous skin lesions and malignant ones accurately.

Further research is required on the VOCT device to fine-tune the device's ability to identify a lesion's borders and areas of greater density which would then allow a surgeon to remove the entire lesion with minimally invasive surgery. The researchers are waiting for FDA approval to begin large-scale testing.

As diagnostic tools improve, cancers can be found much earlier and have much better outcomes. A cure for cancer could be just around the corner.

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