Melanoma, a type of skin cancer, can be deadly or highly treatable, depending on when it’s caught. Unfortunately, detection efforts can be as much art as science. Is the mole asymmetrical? Does it have uneven borders? What color is it? How big? Even moles that lack melanoma’s classic characteristics can end up being cancerous.
Four recent engineering graduates from McMaster University, near Toronto, may have found a more objective way to detect melanoma. For their senior project, they built a device that measures the temperature differences between melanoma and normal tissue. Their prototype, the sKan, recently won the James Dyson Award for its novel approach.
“We came across research on thermo-analysis of skin lesions to detect melanoma,” said Shivad Bhavsar in a phone interview. Bhavsar co-developed the sKan with Michael Takla, Rotimi Fadiya and Prateek Mathur. “That really struck us, and we thought we could provide a low-cost solution that could be used in clinics.”
The study that sparked their interest was conducted at Johns Hopkins in 2010. Researchers used sensitive infrared cameras to detect melanomas. Cancer cell metabolisms are especially active, generating more heat. By cooling the area around a mole, and imaging it as the temperature returned to normal, the Hopkins team could differentiate between malignant and normal tissue. The problem was moving the technology from lab to doctor’s office.
“This is super expensive equipment you find in university physics labs,” said Bhavsar. “Those kinds of things are never going to make it to a normal general practitioner’s clinic. We used very inexpensive temperature sensors, called thermistors, that change electrical properties with temperature. We have a grid of those sensors to map out an area of the skin.”
Data from the sensors is fed into a PC, which produces a heat map. The team believes they can produce the sKan for around $1,000, which would make it relatively easy to bring into clinical practice. While there are a number of technologies being tested to detect melanomas, the sKan’s potential low cost makes it particularly interesting.
“I think we’re in an area where we’re going to see a lot of devices come forward,” said Hubert Greenway, Jr., chairman of MOHS and Dermatologic Surgery at Scripps Clinic in San Diego, during a phone interview. “This one is kind of unique because of the potential low cost and easy accessibility for the physician’s office and the patient.”
Still, as intriguing as the device may be, Greenway notes the company has many questions to answer.
“Some areas of the body have more vasculature than others, such as the head and the neck compared to the arm,” said Greenway. “Will the device be just as reliable in those areas?”
In addition, melanomas can be superficial or deep. Will the sKan need a certain volume of cancer cells? And will it be effective at ruling out melanoma, as well as ruling it in?
Bhavsar and colleagues have incorporated as PRSM to further develop the product. Their next step is to create a high-sensitivity prototype for pre-clinical testing. Given the validation from Dyson and other groups, a lot of people will be watching.
“If it’s something that could encourage a physician, who perhaps doesn’t see a lot of melanoma, to do a biopsy and get an early diagnosis,” said Greenway, “that’s a very good thing. I look forward to seeing the tests come out.”
By adopting a precision medicine approach to pregnancy management, we can help empower today’s expectant parents in their individual pregnancy journey and provide physicians with the tools to provide optimum care.
Varda Shalev, MD, MPH
Digital healthcare investments are benefiting from the surfeit of cash that is lifting the biotech sector and, in fact, all industries in 2018. Learn more by downloading the report.
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