Updated: Jan 23
Cancer is a disease that often proves to be a race against time. The sooner a diagnosis can be made, the more effectively a patient can be treated, and the less harm the disease can cause. However, when treatment is delayed, there is a lower chance of survival and a greater chance of treatment problems or higher costs of care. New research aims to combat this exact problem for melanoma by developing technological inventions to quickly and seamlessly detect the disease in its early stages.
Skin cancer is currently the most common of any type of cancer worldwide . Melanoma is the most severe type of skin cancer, and it occurs when melanocytes (the cells that produce the skin pigment melanin) start to multiply out of control . Melanoma can cause a host of harmful symptoms, including headaches, bone pain, rapid weight loss, and painful growths on the skin . Though the cause of melanoma is not entirely known, long-term exposure to UV radiation from sunlight or tanning beds is believed to increase the risk of developing the debilitating disease .
Treatments for melanoma vary depending on the severity of the disease. If diagnosed late, the disease can easily spread past the skin and is often treated with intense options like surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. However, melanoma can be removed entirely with biopsy (removal of the affected tissue) if detected early. Therefore, early diagnosis is essential for melanoma patients to prevent these time-and-money-consuming options.
In the past, melanoma diagnoses have been very rudimentary and have involved biopsies or physical exams . A biopsy involves the removal of a skin sample from a patient to be tested for the presence of melanoma. Conversely, physical exams involve inspecting the skin for any unusual growths or moles. Unfortunately, both these methods are usually performed too late after melanoma has developed in the patient to be effective. Consequently, researchers have begun to search for less invasive diagnostic techniques that can detect melanoma even earlier and allow for quicker treatment of the disease.
One such developing technology involves the development of photographic imaging systems . These systems involve using an imaging system to map the skin surface and document any lesions or skin irregularities that could lead to skin cancer diagnosis. These systems can detect melanoma to far greater sensitivity and specificity than purely visual tests while requiring half the effort and time of visual tests. One such test is from the platform DermEngine, which is a cloud-based system that detects skin lesions and maps 3D images of the body with phone cameras. The technology then compares the photos to similar images in a database with visual matching software to accurately diagnose the patient. This technology only costs a patient about five dollars per visit and can be performed literally at the flash of a button.
Another new technology involves immune phenotyping of melanoma through digital devices. Immunophenotyping measures the density of CD8+ cells in different spots on a patient's body. CD8+ is a type of cell released by the body in response to tumors such as those characteristics of melanoma . In this way, the technology hopes to accurately diagnose the severity of melanoma, while shortening the overall diagnosis time for patients. Similar technology also aims to predict the cancerous spread of melanoma at its early stage. By using technologies to transcriptionally understand tumors on a patient's body and analyze them at a molecular level, new technologies can predict disease spread severity and the patient's response to future treatment. This powerful tool can allow clinicians to propose the treatment plan that best suits an individual patient and can best guarantee their survival .
Melanoma is a growing problem in the United States—with 106,110 new patients diagnosed every year . The growing problem of the disease also calls for greater diagnostic and treatment methods. Technological measures, such as digital imaging and immunological phenotyping, allow physicians to diagnose patients earlier on and devise treatment plans that ensure the greatest chance of survival. These discoveries prove to be a vast step into the future for both skin cancer and cancer treatment as a whole.
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