Although often curable if detected early, melanoma causes the deaths of nearly 9,000 Americans each year. The incidence of melanoma is increasing at a rate faster than that of any of the seven most common cancers. A new medical diagnostic device invented by John A. Viator, Ph.D, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and dermatology at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, can speed up the diagnosis of metastatic melanoma and may help save hundreds of lives.

The new photoacoustic melanoma detection device emits laser light into enriched blood cell samples consisting of millions of white blood cells and possibly cancer cells. The light is absorbed only by the melanin within the cancer cells and generates high frequency acoustic responses that are picked up by sensors in a photoacoustic flow meter. The result is immediate detection of melanoma cells - before deadly tumors show up.

Diagnosis now depends on observation of irregular moles, brown spots, or tumors by the patient or the physician. To determine how advanced the disease is for patients with metastatic melanoma and the appropriate treatment protocols, CT scanners or MRI equipment are often used to detect advancing, marble-sized tumors at a cost of thousands of dollars. This new technology may ensure early detection of melanoma by spotting circulating tumor cells in the blood, and also be more cost-effective, with tests costing approximately $200 each.

Development of a commercial prototype for the melanoma detection device (the size of a typical desktop printer) and clinical trials still need to be done to obtain FDA approval, but in two to three years, Viator expects many health care providers will be able to use the device to diagnose and treat melanoma before it gets to advanced stages. He recently formed Viator Technologies, Inc. and signed a license for the patent rights that protects the University’s proprietary interest in the device while allowing other scientists and academia to use the device and methodology for further research and testing.


Also: Learn about other ways that lasers are delivering a bright future for diagnostics.

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