Biomedical Professor Creates Device that Replaces Biopsies

A new tool from UT biomedical engineers makes it easy and painless to detect skin cancer, which as the most common form of cancer afflicts 69,000 people in the U.S. annually.

Cancer cell magnification

The left side of the photograph (100X magnification) shows normal skin, progressing in the middle and right of the photograph into pre-cancer of the skin (actinic keratosis). There is some epidermal thickening and inflammation on the deep edge.

For every melanoma found, doctors perform approximately 50 biopsies. As a result, healthcare providers spend billions of dollars per year taking biopsies of benign lesions, not to mention the patient's pain, scarring and reluctance to undergo the procedure. Dr. James Tunnell had an idea for the solution: a less expensive, noninvasive, detection method that encourages patients to see their doctor for quick, affordable, painless exams.

"It is widely believed that the greatest achievement in cancer management is the early detection and treatment of the disease," says Tunnell, assistant professor in the Cockrell School biomedical engineering department. "The next generation cancer management strategies require technologies that combine sensing, targeting, and treating of the earliest stage disease."

Dr. James Tunnell

Dr. James Tunnell

Tunnell and his student researchers developed a pen-sized, light-based device for detecting skin cancers. He licensed the device to a startup company, DermDx Inc., and is currently conducting clinical validation studies of the technique. More than 100 patients have undergone the simple exam so far at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and UT Southwestern Medical Center, Austin Initiatives.

"I grew up on the coast, so I'm at high risk for skin cancer and keenly interested in developing ways to avoid all of the biopsies," says Tunnell.

The device applied spectroscopy (optical or light-based) techniques used for decades in the laboratory to determine the chemical or biochemical composition of materials. Knowing biochemical changes in human tissue reveals disease, Dr. Tunnell adapted the technique to detect these changes.

What's more, he recognized the large, slow, expensive, and complex equipment currently in medical use needed updating. The machines require specially-trained operators and specialized clinics. So after a few years of trial and error, he created an instrument that is small, fast, simple and appropriate for a doctor's office.

Tunnell's new cancer detection technique requires only a few seconds. Using a pen-sized probe, weak pulses of light are emitted from the tip onto the skin or tissue and then recaptured by the probe and sent back to a computer system for analysis. The light measures the cellular and molecular signatures of skin cancer without the need for a biopsy or the excision of a tissue sample.

"Within a second, it can take a measurement and tell you whether or not it's cancer," Tunnell said. "And you can move the probe around quickly to different spots of the skin."

DermDx Inc. has completed several pilot clinical studies, and is now planning a multiple site device trial. The company hopes to begin marketing the device in the U.S. once it receives FDA approval.

Early funding for developing the device came from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation.

His collaborators on the project include Dr. Jason Reichenberg of the UT Southwestern, Austin Initiative; Michael Migden, MD Anderson Cancer Center; students Narasimhan Rajaram, Sam Lim, Sheldon Bish, and Brandon Nichols.