To detect skin cancer, dermatologists rely on magnifying glasses to examine suspicious blemishes and scalpels to cut tissue for analysis. With up to more than 70 percent of biopsies coming back negative, millions of healthy patients undergo painful, costly, and unnecessary procedures.
Using shortwave rays used in cellphones and airport security scanners, a technique was developed that detects skin lesions and determines whether they are cancerous or benign — a technology that could ultimately be incorporated into a handheld device that could rapidly diagnose skin cancer without a scalpel.
The technology uses millimeter-wave radiation, which penetrates certain materials and bounces off others. Just as metal reflects more energy than your body, so cancerous tumors reflect more calibrated energy than healthy skin, making it possible to identify diseased tissue by looking for reflectivity hotspots.
Custom-built antennae generated high-resolution images of biopsied tissue; tiny tumors were mapped as accurately as lab-based testing. Cancerous cells reflected around 40 percent more calibrated energy than healthy tissue, showing that millimeter-wave reflectivity is a reliable marker for cancerous tissue. The device would be safe to use directly on the skin for an almost instant diagnostic reading of specific kinds of skin cancer — including lethal melanomas — based on their individual reflectivity signatures.
Since millimeter-wave rays penetrate the skin, the scanners can generate real-time 3D images of tumors that could guide surgeons and eliminate the need for multiple trial-and-error biopsies to fully remove cancerous tissue. The devices could also be configured to interpret images automatically and deliver basic diagnostic information — such as a warning to get checked out by a doctor — without needing a trained operator.