The world’s first scanner capable of detecting skin cancer invisible to the human eye has been invented to improve diagnosis and speed up surgery.
The ‘skin meter’, developed by scientists at the University of Warwick, aims to detect the extent to which cancer has spread under the skin.
Skin cancer patients treated at Coventry University Hospital are now being encouraged to take part in testing the technology.
Professor Joe Hardwick, consultant plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the hospital, said the development was “very exciting”.
“Some skin cancers can be under the skin that we can’t actually see, so when we surgically remove them, occasionally a little bit remains,” he explained.
“The hope of this technology is that we can be more accurate in surgery and eliminate more cancer the first time.”
Currently, multiple skin samples need to be taken and examined during surgery to ensure all cancer cells are removed – but using a skin scanner should significantly reduce surgery time.
In 2013, Heather Norgrove discovered an unusual white lump on her upper arm. It was removed, but six months later it came back and was bigger than before.
It was only then that she was diagnosed with an aggressive melanoma that had to be removed and required a skin graft.
“If we had a scanner, it would immediately indicate there was a problem,” she said.
“We’ve known for a long time that it was most likely malignant, it had burst inwards, so it was much bigger below it than above it.”
Importantly, she said the scanner could have avoided the “long and horrific wait” for diagnosis and treatment, and could have started earlier.
The Skinometer uses light pulses from the terahertz portion of the spectrum, which strike and bounce off the surface of the skin.
The waveform of the reflected light shows how far the cancer has spread under the skin.
Professor Emma MacPherson from the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick is leading the project.
“We’re collecting the first data in the world to try and show that this will work and we can really speed up the time to cancer diagnosis and treatment,” she said.
“With around 16,000 new cases of skin cancer being diagnosed each year in the UK alone, it’s obviously putting pressure on the NHS, so if we can speed up this process…it will take a lot of pressure off the NHS and reduce costs. “
She hopes the Skinometer will be available within five years and eventually for GP surgery.
It may also help detect colon cancer.
By accurately measuring moisture levels, it is also expected to be used to develop specific sunscreens for different types of skin.
For Heather, this might make a difference. She received extensive treatment after the cancer spread.
Now, she says it’s “imperative” for skin cancer patients to volunteer for the study so they can help others in the future.
The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with additional support from Cancer Research UK.