Researchers close in on laser-based skin cancer scanner

In collaboration with the Press Association

US scientists are developing an imaging technique which could one day allow skin cancer to be detected without having to carry out a biopsy.

Duke University chemists are working on a system which uses lasers to capture 3D images of the chemical and structural changes occurring beneath the skin's surface.

Professor Warren Warren, director of Duke's Centre for Molecular and Biological Imaging, explained: "The standard way physicians do a diagnosis now is to cut out a mole and look at a slice of it with a microscope.

"What we're trying to do is find cancer signals they can get to without having to cut out the mole."

Professor Warren revealed that the technique targets molecules such as haemoglobin (a component of red blood cells) and the skin pigment melanin, the distribution of which can serve as an early warning sign for skin cancer growth.

While technology previously existed to look at other biological molecules, melanin and haemoglobin remain invisible using such methods and can therefore not be detected.

However, the chemists at Duke University found that by bombarding haemoglobin and melanin in the skin with highly controlled laser pulses from a tiny fibre-optic cable, they could force them to emit light.

This glow could then be magnified by a microscope to create computer-generated images similar to those a doctor would see if they were to slice down to that particular point in the skin.

Professor Warren continued: "What this is leading to is for a doctor to be able to touch a mole with a fibre-optic cable and characterise what is going on inside it.

"Today, if you visit a dermatologist, he or she will probably see many moles on your body. But the difficulty is trying to figure out which of those, if any, are dangerous."

The researchers are now collaborating with Duke Medical Centre's dermatology and cell biology departments to begin clinical tests using the technology.

"We have proposals pending for developing a compact laser system that could be sitting in a dermatologist's office here at Duke within three years where we could actually have the first human demonstrations," he added.