Shining a light on suspicious-looking moles

A portable probe developed by UBC researchers may allow worrisome moles to be screened quickly and noninvasively. If the screening results indicate that a mole is sufficiently suspicious, the individual could then be sent to a specialist for closer examination.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have developed a prototype version of a low-cost handheld device for detecting skin cancer without a biopsy. The device may one day enable people to have moles initially screened at their local pharmacy instead of a doctor’s office or health clinic.

By making melanoma screening more accessible, the technology may allow skin cancer — which accounts for one in every three cancer cases worldwide — to be diagnosed and treated earlier than it otherwise might. And by offering a reliable, objective supplement to the traditional screening methods used by doctors, it may also reduce the number of biopsies that people undergo.

“Skin cancer is very common, but unfortunately dermatologists are not,” says Daniel Louie, a doctoral student in UBC’s School of Biomedical Engineering and the study’s lead author. “This can result in long wait times to see an expert. Patients in rural areas may have to travel large distances to see a dermatologist. An accessible skin cancer screening tool should help more people receive faster and more efficient care.”             

In their study, which appeared in the Journal of Biomedical Opticsthe UBC team demonstrated that by shining a laser beam on a skin lesion and analyzing how it changes certain properties of the light — the lesion’s “optical polarization signature” — their probe can distinguish melanomas from other types of lesions in a matter of seconds. The project included a preliminary clinical study involving 69 skin lesions across 47 patients. 

The probe would serve a purpose similar to that of a mammogram, or a breast X-ray, which can help health care professionals decide whether or not a lump is suspicious enough to warrant a biopsy.

While further technical refinements and large-scale clinical testing still lie ahead, the technology shows promise as a valuable complement to the current standard diagnostic procedure — a visual inspection and/or biopsy administered by a family physician or specialist — whose inconvenience and expense may serve to discourage people with lesions from seeking potentially life-saving medical care.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in North America and is becoming more common every year. In a 2010 report, the annual economic burden of skin cancer in Canada was stated to be $532 million and estimated to increase to $922 million by 2031.