Israeli scientists at Tel Aviv University have developed new optical technology that will enable an automatic and immediate diagnosis of melanoma, a form of skin cancer, potentially saving many patients’ lives.
The innovative technology is based on special optical fibers that can distinguish between a benign lesion on the skin and a malignant one, using a non-invasive, immediate and automatic process in real time.
It can also distinguish between types of skin cancer, such as the life-threatening melanoma and malignancies that are less dangerous.
The technology was used successfully on about 100 patients at a major hospital in Israel.
The new method was developed in the laboratory of Prof. Abraham Katzir of the Faculty of Exact Sciences at Tel Aviv University. The diagnosis is rapid, non-invasive and painless.
According to Katzir, immediate diagnosis in cases of melanoma can save lives.
He explained that when a suspicious skin lesion is today found in a routine examination, it is removed in a minor surgical procedure and sent to a laboratory for testing.
A pathologist then examines the lesion and determines whether it is melanoma.
In most cases where melanoma is discovered and removed early, when it is still superficial and less than one-millimeter thick, the patient recovers.
Late diagnosis, when the melanoma is more than one millimeter thick, significantly reduces the chances of recovery and can be life-threatening.
“The idea that guided us in developing the technology was that in the visible range, there are various substances, having various colors, which are not characteristic of each substance," Katzir said.
"On the other hand, in the infrared region, various substances have different ‘colors’ of a sort, depending on the chemical makeup of each substance.
"Therefore, we figured that with the help of devices that can identify these ’colors’, healthy skin and each of the benign and malignant lesions would have different ’colors’ which would enable us to identify melanoma.”
Katzir’s research group developed special optical fibers that are transparent in the infrared. The group, working in collaboration with physicists Prof. Yosef Raichlin of Ariel University, Dr. Max Platkov of the Negev Nuclear Research Center and Dr. Svetlana Basov of Tel Aviv University, developed a system based on these fibers that is suitable for evaluating skin lesions.
The researchers connect one end of this type of fiber to a device that measures the "colors" in the infrared and lightly place the other end on a lesion on a patient’s skin for several seconds. The fiber makes it possible to check the "color" of the lesion in real time.
Clinical trials were carried out on suspicious lesions in around 100 patients. With the help of the new system, physicists measured the "color" of each lesion, before it was removed and sent to a pathology laboratory.
The researchers showed that all of the lesions determined by pathologists as being of a certain type, such as melanoma, had a characteristic "color" in the infrared. Each different type of lesion has a different "color."
“This technology gives us a kind of ‘fingerprint’ that makes a clear diagnosis of the various lesions possible, by measuring their characteristic ’colors,’” said Katzir.
“In this way, lesions can be diagnosed using a non-invasive optical method, and the physician and the patient receive the results automatically and immediately. This is unlike the test involving surgery that is routinely used, for which the pathological diagnosis takes a long time.”
Following the success of the study, the researchers plan to confirm the evaluation method with hundreds of patients.
“Melanoma is life-threatening cancer, so it is very important to diagnose it early on when it is still superficial," Katzir said.
"The innovative system will enable every dermatologist to determine the character of a suspicious lesion automatically, and particularly if it is melanoma," he said.
"This system has the potential to cause a dramatic change in the field of diagnosing and treating skin cancer and perhaps other types of cancer as well. The challenge will be to make this technology, which is still expensive, into something that will be used in every hospital or clinic.”