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Photoacoustic device identifies cancer before tumors form

Researchers are using laser-induced ultrasound to provide much earlier detection of aggressive melanoma cancers, before tumors even have a chance to form.

Early detection of skin cancer may soon be possible, thanks to researchers who compare their approach to looking for a black 18-wheeler in an eight-lane highway of white cars.

John Viator analyzes a blood sample using photoacoustics. University of Missouri

The new technique for melanoma detection, proposed by researchers at the University of Missouri, uses photoacoustics (laser-induced ultrasound) to find cancer cells before they form into tumors. Testing could cost just a few hundred dollars. The current method of detection, by comparison, requires waiting for tumors to form and can cost thousands of dollars.

"Using a small blood sample, our device and method will provide an earlier diagnosis for aggressive melanoma cancers," John Viator, associate professor of biomedical engineering and dermatology, said yesterday in a statement.

The photoacoustic device directs laser light into the blood sample, and that light is absorbed by melanin within the cancerous cells. As the lasers quickly heat and cool those cells, they expand. Technicians are able to spot the cancerous cells by looking for this expansion--the aforementioned black 18-wheeler.

Because the device can capture the cells, the researchers think they can also identify the type of melanoma cancer, allowing for more specialized treatment.

"There are several melanoma drugs on the horizon," Viator said. "Combined with the new photoacoustic detection method, physicians will be able to use targeted therapies and personalized treatments, changing the medical management of this aggressive cancer."

Viator has already signed a commercialization license to allow scientists to use the device for research. His team is also organizing clinical studies in the hopes of getting FDA approval for broader use, which could take a few years. The final device, Viator says, will likely resemble a desktop printer.