AUSTIN, Texas, Aug. 19, 2008 -- A new grant will allow a researcher to continue developing and testing a device that uses light to detect skin cancer without the need for an invasive biopsy. University of Texas at Austin biomedical engineer James Tunnell has been awarded a $260,000 Phase II Early Career Award from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. The grant will support his work for the next two years to refine the device called a "clinical spectrometer" and to conduct additional clinical trials. He previously received one of 23 Phase I awards from the foundation, and was one of seven Phase II awards selected from that pool to continue his research. Using a pen-sized probe, weak pulses of light are emitted from the tip onto the skin or tissue and then recaptured by the probe and sent back to a computer system for analysis.
"Within a second, it can take a measurement and tell you whether or not its cancer," said Tunnell, an assistant professor at the university. "And you can move the probe around quickly to different spots of the skin." The light measures the cellular and molecular signatures of skin cancer without the need for a biopsy or the excision of a tissue sample. "It can tell if the structures of the cells and the biochemicals present are associated with the progression of these cancers," Tunnell said. "Many biopsies and surgeries would be unnecessary if you had a device that could catch the cancer earlier and identify the margins of where it exists."
Throughout the world, melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, has been increasing over the past 20 years, accounting for 3 percent of cancer deaths. In the United States, more than one million new cases occur annually, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Survival rates increase substantially when the disease is diagnosed at an early stage. So far, the device has been tested on 80 people in clinical trials at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and with The University of Texas Medical Branch clinicians in Austin. A total of 300 people will be screened at those institutions using the device. "The early results look very promising," Tunnell said.