Research published in peer-reviewed journal

Israeli tech said to give precise, knife-free skin cancer diagnosis in seconds

Dropping biopsy, pioneering method uses optics to assess lesions; finds all 15 cancer patients in 90-strong sample

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A dermatologist examining a patient for possible skin cancer (AndreyPopov via iStock by Getty Images)
A dermatologist examining a patient for possible skin cancer (AndreyPopov via iStock by Getty Images)

New Israeli technology will allow doctors to diagnose melanomas and other skin cancers in 10 seconds without cutting into the body, its inventors say.

Assessing potentially cancerous lesions is generally a painful and lengthy process that normally relies on dermatologists spotting them and sending the patient to surgeons for a biopsy. Alternatives, like reflectance confocal microscopy, tend to rely on highly skilled doctors.

But Tel Aviv University scientists say they have developed a super-speedy automatic method to analyze lesions on the skin.

They have exploited the fact that lesions emit different colors when placed under infrared light depending on whether or not they are cancerous — and, if they are, what type of cancer is present.

The fact that different cancers reflect different colors, and that this can be used for diagnosis, isn’t a new discovery. But the Israeli team has broken new ground by pioneering a way to assess lesions using light while they are still on the body.

The optical tech will “have the potential to cause a dramatic change in the field of diagnosing and treating skin cancer,” said Prof. Abraham Katzir, from Tel Aviv’s exact sciences faculty.

Prof. Abraham Katzir from Tel Aviv’s exact sciences faculty using the new skin cancer detection method on a patient (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

He has just tested it on 90 patients, and it accurately identified the five melanoma patients, and 10 patients with other skin cancers. It accurately categorized lesions on other 75 patients as cancer-free. The research has been reported in the peer-reviewed journal Medical Physics.

Katzir told The Times of Israel: “We have developed special fibers that carry infrared and which are simply touched on the lesion. Using this, we get results within ten seconds, based on the color that returns.

“This can eliminate the whole complicated and upsetting assessment procedure that normally involves a cut, a scar, and a waiting period,” he added.

Dr. Idan Cohen, a skin cancer researcher from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who was not involved in the study, told The Times of Israel that the research is “potentially interesting” because it could bring about “a rapid non-invasive tool for early skin cancer detection.”

Katzir said that the technology has the potential to save lives, as today dermatologists only send a small minority of lesions for biopsies, making judgment calls based on what they see, with some inevitable oversights.

Prof. Abraham Katzir from Tel Aviv’s exact sciences faculty places the fiber from his new technology on a patient’s skin (courtesy of Tel Aviv University

Using current methods it would be impractical to screen each lesion, but Katzir thinks that with his fast and non-invasive method it will be possible to do so.

“With melanomas in particular, given that the chances of survival are much lower when they reach one millimeter, it is particularly important to detect them early, meaning that our method can make a big difference,” he said.

The system is being developed for skin cancers, as the skin is most accessible by fibers, but Katzir said that the method could be used for some other cancers, “such as in the vagina or the mouth.”

Doctors can already use infrared to probe for cancer, but only on samples that have been removed from the body.

“The system that measures the color of lesions is large, heavy, and can’t be placed on patients,” said Katzir, explaining that his research team developed special fibers that connect to existing machines to deliver the infrared light to the lesion and take the color that the lesion reflects — not visible to the human eye — back to the machine for analysis.

Regular fibers are not suitable for this task as they absorb too much of the infrared light, so his team developed special fibers using silver halide crystals, once a key ingredient of photographic film.

Katzir said that the next stage of his research involves testing the tech on hundreds of patients. He predicted that it will eventually be used to create simple-to-use machines with infrared probes that automatically deliver a diagnosis via a screen for each lesion.

“This technology gives us a kind of ‘fingerprint’ that makes a clear diagnosis of the various lesions possible, by measuring their characteristic colors,” he said. “In this way, lesions can be diagnosed using a non-invasive optical method, and the physician and the patient can receive the results automatically and immediately.”

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