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Cancer Probe Trials Funded

Photonics.com
Aug 2008
AUSTIN, Texas, Aug. 19, 2008 -- A new grant will allow a researcher to continue developing and testing a device that uses light to detect skin cancer without the need for an invasive biopsy.

University of Texas at Austin biomedical engineer James Tunnell has been awarded a $260,000 Phase II Early Career Award from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. The grant will support his work for the next two years to refine the device called a "clinical spectrometer" and to conduct additional clinical trials. He previously received one of 23 Phase I awards from the foundation, and was one of seven Phase II awards selected from that pool to continue his research.

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.Tunnell.jpg
Biomedical engineer James Tunnell of the University of Texas at Austin is developing a device that uses light to detect skin cancer, without the need for an invasive biopsy. (Photo: Marsha Miller)
"Within a second, it can take a measurement and tell you whether or not its cancer," said Tunnell, an assistant professor at the university. "And you can move the probe around quickly to different spots of the skin."

The light measures the cellular and molecular signatures of skin cancer without the need for a biopsy or the excision of a tissue sample.

"It can tell if the structures of the cells and the biochemicals present are associated with the progression of these cancers," Tunnell said. "Many biopsies and surgeries would be unnecessary if you had a device that could catch the cancer earlier and identify the margins of where it exists."

Throughout the world, melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, has been increasing over the past 20 years, accounting for 3 percent of cancer deaths. In the United States, more than one million new cases occur annually, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Survival rates increase substantially when the disease is diagnosed at an early stage.

So far, the device has been tested on 80 people in clinical trials at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and with The University of Texas Medical Branch clinicians in Austin. A total of 300 people will be screened at those institutions using the device.

"The early results look very promising," Tunnell said.

The fiber probe, he says, is small enough to fit inside an endoscope, making it adaptable to also detect esophageal cancer. Tunnell says it could take three to five years for commercialization if it's deemed commercially viable.

Collaborators on the project include: Tri Nguyen, director of the Mohs Micrograph and Dermatologic Surgery Clinic at M.D. Anderson, and Jason Riechenberg, clinical director for dermatology at The University of Texas Medical Branch.

In June, Tunnel also received a National Institutes of Health/NCI $1.5 million award to conduct nanoparticle cancer research. That project will focus on developing molecular imaging technologies for screening, diagnosing and treating cancer at the cellular level.

"We will design nanoparticles that can be injected into the bloodstream where they will seek out and attach themselves to cancer cells within the body," Tunnell said. "In this case, the particles themselves are identifying the cancer cells, and we can then image the nanoparticles in order to find the cancer."

Using weak levels of light the particles act as imaging agents, making it possible to locate cancer cells. Then, higher light levels can be used to heat the same particles, killing the cancer cells while leaving nearby healthy cells unharmed.

For more information, visit: www.bme.utexas.edu/research/tunnell


GLOSSARY
light
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
nanoparticle
A small object that behaves as a whole unit or entity in terms of it’s transport and it’s properties, as opposed to an individual molecule which on it’s own is not considered a nanoparticle.. Nanoparticles range between 100 and 2500 nanometers in diameter.  
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
spectrometer
A kind of spectrograph in which some form of detector, other than a photographic film, is used to measure the distribution of radiation in a particular wavelength region.  
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