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Promise and Progress - JHU Engineering Student Invents Melanoma Screening Device

The Time is Now: 2010-2011

JHU Engineering Student Invents Melanoma Screening Device

Date: November 11, 2010

March 26, 2010

Muge Pirtini, M.S., a Johns Hopkins mechanical engineering student, was selected as one of Baltimore's "10 to Watch Under 30."  Under the tutelage of Cila Herman, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University and a special camera provided by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Pirtini helped develop a thermal sensor to distinguish melanoma from non-melanoma. 

“The problem with diagnosing melanoma in the year 2010 is that we don’t have any objective way to diagnose this disease,” said Rhoda Alani, M.D., adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and professor and chair of Dermatology at the Boston University School of Medicine. Doctors look for moles and subjective clues such as size, shape and coloring. “Our goal is to give an objective measurement as to whether a lesion may be malignant. It could take much of the guesswork out of screening patients for skin cancer.”

Melanoma is an aggressive and lethal form of skin cancer, but when diagnosed early, it is very treatable.  Pirtini’s method uses a noninvasive infrared scanning system to detect the slight temperature differences that exist between healthy tissue and a growing tumor, allowing doctors to distinguish a harmless mole from a deadly melanoma.

Because cancer cells divide more rapidly than normal cells, they typically generate more metabolic activity and release more energy as heat. To detect this, Herman uses a highly sensitive infrared camera on loan from the Applied Physics Lab. Normally, the temperature difference between cancerous and healthy skins cells is extremely small, so Herman and Pirtini devised a way to make the difference stand out. First, they cool a patient’s skin with a harmless one-minute burst of compressed air. When the cooling is halted, they immediately record infrared images of the target skin area for two to three minutes. Cancer cells typically reheat more quickly than the surrounding healthy tissue, and this difference can be captured by the infrared camera and viewed through sophisticated image processing.

A pilot study of 50 patients is currently underway and will help investigators begin to refine the technology to ensure it specifically and accurately identifies melanomas and precancerous lesions. The end product the investigators envision is a hand-held device. Dermatologists could use it to evaluate suspicious mole and could be incorporated into a full-body-scanning system for patients with a large number of pigmented lesions.

There is much more work to be done, say the researchers.  “We need to fine-tune the instrument—the scanning system and the software—and develop diagnostic criteria for cancerous lesions,” says Herman.  “When the research and refinement are done, we hope to be able to show that our system can find melanoma at an early stage before it spreads and becomes dangerous to the patient.”

The discovery was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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