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New Technology Uses Temperature to Detect Melanoma

Posted: March 2, 2010

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With this goal in mind, Alani teamed with heat transfer expert Cila Herman, a professor of mechanical engineering in Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering. Three years ago, Herman obtained a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop new ways to detect subsurface changes in temperature. Working with Muge Pirtini, a mechanical engineering doctoral student, Herman aimed her research at measuring heat differences just below the surface of the skin.

Because cancer cells divide more rapidly than normal cells, they typically generate more metabolic activity and release more energy as heat. To detect this, Herman uses a highly sensitive infrared camera on loan from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Normally, the temperature difference between cancerous and healthy skins cells is extremely small, so Herman and Pirtini devised a way to make the difference stand out. First, they cool a patient's skin with a harmless one-minute burst of compressed air. When the cooling is halted, they immediately record infrared images of the target skin area for two to three minutes. Cancer cells typically reheat more quickly than the surrounding healthy tissue, and this difference can be captured by the infrared camera and viewed through sophisticated image processing.

"The system is actually very simple," Herman said. "An infrared image is similar to the images seen through night-vision goggles. In this medical application, the technology itself is noninvasive; the only inconvenience to the patient is the cooling."

The current pilot study is designed to determine how well the technology can detect melanoma. To test it, dermatologist-identified lesions undergo thermal scanning with the new system, and then a biopsy is performed to determine whether melanoma is actually present.

"Obviously, there is a lot of work to do," Herman said. "We need to fine-tune the instrument -- the scanning system and the software -- and develop diagnostic criteria for cancerous lesions. When the research and refinement are done, we hope to be able to show that our system can find melanoma at an early stage before it spreads and becomes dangerous to the patient."