UT scientists shed light on skin cancer

Areeba Khwaja

Some pens write. Others detect skin cancer. 

James Tunnell, Cockrell School of Engineering professor, and Dr. Jason Reichenberg, dermatologist at Seton Medical Center, have combined their expertise to create a device the size of a pen that detects three different types of skin cancer — all within five seconds.

Though the concept sounds like science fiction, this device will undergo clinical trials in a few short weeks. The upcoming study will be conducted with 250 patients at the University Medical Center Brackenridge, a few miles from UT.

“If our newest studies finish on time, I suspect the device will become available to the public in five to ten years,” Reichenberg said.

The light from this device shines through a hand-held probe that illuminates the skin. Researchers can record information about the skin based on how this light reacts to it and the color of the light that is re-emitted. Because different skin cancers are composed of different types of cells, they absorb varying wavelengths of light. 

This reveals the chemical composition of the cells, which shows whether the skin is cancerous. 

The device uses three methods of optical spectroscopy techniques to detect skin cancer: reflectance, laser induced fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy. Each of these three spectroscopies uses a different type of light and detects a different kind of cancer.

The device is capable of detecting basal cell carcinoma, squamous carcinoma and malignant melanoma.

“From a technical innovation standpoint, combining the three different types of spectroscopy into one device was the most challenging part,” Tunnell said. “Each had its own technical limitations.”

Xu Feng, a biomedical engineering graduate student working on this project, studies how the skin changes as cancer progresses. She said that the best part of the device is that it is non-invasive, which means it is completely harmless to patients.

“The current method for detecting skin cancer involves the surgeon looking at the lesion, its color, shape, etc. and then deciding if surgery needs to be done,” Feng said. “The skin gets cut, then there’s histopathology, sectioning, staining, microscopy and they often find they need to cut more skin until all the malignant tissue is finally removed.” 

Not only does this process take a very long time, but it wastes about $2.8 billion a year, according to Feng. Doctors and patients can avoid this spending by using devices such as the one Tunnell and Reichenberg have created. 

This simple design has clinical roots. Reichenberg said he tested the pen with patients to see what model they were most comfortable with.  

“We tried many shapes and sizes. The pen shape seems the least intimidating to the patient, and can still house all the materials we need to make the device work,” Reichenberg said. “I’m here to help bridge the gap from benchtop to the bedside.”

Although a new clinical trial is just starting, Reichenberg said that the concept for this medical device was first developed back in 2005, when he and Tunnell were introduced by a former dean at UT-Austin. Since then, both have refined and redesigned their device considerably.

“I think we are in the final generation of the device,” Tunnell said. “We’ve gone through three generations, and I think this one combines everything that we want.”