VANCOUVER—A University of B.C. doctoral student has developed a low-cost laser probe to aid in early detection of a deadly form of skin cancer.
Daniel Louie, a UBC PhD student in biomedical engineering, built the compact device as part of his studies. The probe — which has yet to be certified or approved by Health Canada — could help medical professionals almost instantly distinguish between a harmless mole and a cancerous one, he said.
“We set out to develop this technology using inexpensive materials, so the final device would be easy to manufacture and widely used as a preliminary screening tool for skin cancer,” Louie said in a statement.
“With skin cancer, there’s a saying that if you can spot it you can stop it — and that’s exactly what this probe is designed to do.”
Roughly 7,200 new cases of melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer, were reported in 2017 in Canada, according to data from the Canadian Cancer Society. That same year, 1,250 Canadians died of melanoma.
“A cancer screening tool should be administered by a trained health-care professional who would know where the patient needs to go afterwards,” Lee, who is also a senior scientist at both BC Cancer and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and who supervised the work, said in a statement.
Lee envisions the probe as a future supplement to existing cancer screening technologies and techniques, rather than a replacement.
He also noted the importance of screening methods will only grow, given the rise in skin cancers in Canada. Both incidence rates of melanoma and death rates from melanoma have been on the rise in Canada for the past quarter century, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
“We have so few dermatologists relative to the growing number of skin cancers that are occurring,” Lee said.
“If we can develop a device that can be integrated easily into other parts of the health care system, we can simplify the screening process and potentially save hundreds if not thousands of lives.”
A study on the laser probe — conducted in concert with Vancouver General Hospital, BC Cancer and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and published in the Journal of Biomedical Optics — looked at 69 skin lesions from 47 volunteer patients at the Vancouver General Hospital Skin Care Centre.
Since light waves change as they pass through an object, researchers were able to study Louie’s laser as it passed through skin tissue from the study’s volunteers, and observe the effects on the light beam.
“Because cancer cells are denser, larger and more irregularly shaped than normal cells, they cause distinctive scattering in the light waves as they pass through,” Louie said in his statement.
“We were able to invent a novel way to interpret these patterns instantaneously.”
Because the laser probe does not rely on expensive technologies such as lenses or cameras, its production is far less expensive than other optical cancer-detection devices. But despite its low cost and ease of use — it provides a numerical readout much like a home thermometer — the device is not intended for use as a consumer product, said Tim Lee, associate professor of skin science and dermatology at UBC.