Invention could reduce number of melanoma biopsies

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by JEAN ENERSEN / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on August 5, 2010 at 5:45 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 10:45 AM

Diagnosing skin cancer means cutting off a piece of skin and waiting for results. Now, a new invention could radically change how doctors find and diagnose the most common type of cancer. 

Four years ago, Brendie Keane started seeing the signs.

"My eyes were starting to change, and I noticed that I had a new mole on my face," said Keane.

A dermatologist confirmed her worst fear. It was a melanoma -- the deadliest type of skin cancer.

"The scar is right from here to here, basically, and the melanoma was right in the middle of it," said Keane.

The only way to confirm skin cancer was to cut off a sample and send it to a lab.

"You have to numb it, take it off, take a piece of skin, so it's invasive," said Dr. Darrel Ellis, dermatologist at Vanderbilt University.

But a machine being tested at Vanderbilt University could make skin biopsies obsolete.

A laser illuminates the structure of the skin at the cellular level.

"It allows us to see the different layers of the skin," said Dr. Ellis.

It scans the chemical analysis of the skin and compares it to a database of known cancers. It could get a patient results in minutes, which could mean years. 

"Melanoma, if you catch it really early, like they did for Brendie, then that person has close to 100 percent survival," said Dr. Ellis.

"Being five years out and safe, you know, it makes you appreciate your health," said Brendie.

Making every day count.

As many as 80 percent of biopsies come back negative, according to the American Cancer Society. Using this machine could significantly reduce the number of unnecessary biopsies. 

The project is funded through the National Institutes of Health.

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