Handheld device could cut the rate of cancer biopsies in half

Stevens Institute of Technology uses millimetre-wave imaging to detect different types of skin cancer including carcinoma, squamos cell carcinoma and actinic keratosis.

Scientists have been able to successfully leverage millimetre-wave imaging to slash the rate of unnecessary biopsies.

In 2015, 5.9 million skin biopsies were performed on Medicare recipients – a 142 per cent increase since the turn of the millennium. The healing process from these procedures is long and painful, as doctors need to carve away small lumps of tissue for laboratory testing, leaving patients with wounds that can take weeks to heal.

Patients have been willing to undergo such treatments to enable early cancer treatment. However, this approach might soon no longer be necessary.

Researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology are developing a low-cost handheld device that could cut the rate of unnecessary biopsies in half and give dermatologists and other frontline physicians easy access to laboratory-grade cancer diagnoses.

“We aren’t trying to get rid of biopsies,” said Negar Tavassolian, director of Stevens’ Bio-Electromagnetics Laboratory, “but we do want to give doctors additional tools and help them to make better decisions.”

The team’s device uses millimetre-wave imaging – the same technology used in airport security scanners – to scan a patient’s skin. As healthy tissue reflects millimetre-wave rays differently than cancerous tissue, it’s theoretically possible to spot cancers by monitoring contrasts in the rays reflected back from the skin.

To bring that approach into clinical practice, the researchers used algorithms to fuse signals captured by multiple different antennas into a single ultrahigh-bandwidth image, reducing noise and quickly capturing high-resolution images of even the tiniest mole or blemish.

After testing a tabletop version of their technology in 71 patients during real-world clinical visits, the team found their methods could accurately distinguish benign and malignant lesions in just a few seconds. The device was able to identify cancerous tissue with 97 per cent sensitivity and 98 per cent specificity – a rate that can compete with even the best hospital-grade diagnostic tools.

“There are other advanced imaging technologies that can detect skin cancers, but they’re big, expensive machines that aren’t available in the clinic,” said Tavassolian. “We’re creating a low-cost device that’s as small and as easy to use as a cellphone, so we can bring advanced diagnostics within reach for everyone.”

As the team’s technology delivers results in seconds, it could potentially be used in routine checkups, enabling early detection of skin cancers.

Currently, the device’s millimetre-wave rays harmlessly penetrate about 2mm below the surface of human skin to provide a clear 3D-map of scanned lesions. However, the researchers predict that future improvements to the algorithm could enable more precise and less invasive biopsying for malignant lesions.

The next step is to pack the team’s diagnostic kit onto an integrated circuit, with a view towards allowing the diagnostic devices to be produced for as little as $100 (approximately £81) per piece – a fraction of the cost of existing hospital-grade diagnostic equipment – within the next two years.

“The path forward is clear and we know what we need to do,” said Tavassolian. “After this proof of concept, we need to miniaturize our technology, bring the price down and bring it to the market.”

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