If detected early, skin cancer can be cured in a high percentage of cases. Unfortunately, skin cancer sometimes goes undetected or is misdiagnosed. A researcher at the University of Missouri-Rolla hopes to remedy the situation through a technique that uses electrical current to detect possibly cancerous cells.
More than a million people in the United States will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year, and more than 10,000 will die from the disease, says Dr. Daryl Beetner, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMR. Early diagnosis of skin cancer is critical to treatment and prevention, he adds.
Beetner and his team of researchers are developing ways to help doctors systematically confirm a visual diagnosis. Through the use of "electrical impedance" — applying electrical current to the skin — they hope to develop new techniques that indicate cancerous cells.
This is a relatively new, but promising, approach to skin cancer detection, Beetner says.
"There had been a few studies to suggest this might be a useful technique, but nobody had actually followed up with studies on patients," he says. Through grants and various other funding sources, Beetner and his team were able to purchase some measurement equipment and recruit students to study patients at a local dermatology. "Now we have clinical studies to show this method has real promise," Beetner says.
Electrical impedance is based on the fact that various materials react with different resistance to electrical currents.
When an electrical current is applied to skin cells, a doctor can examine the level of resistance to determine whether the cells are normal or abnormal. How well the skin conducts electricity is based on factors such as cell structure and blood flow.
Beetner cautions that this method is not meant to replace traditional testing procedures such as the biopsy. Electrical impedance provides a preliminary diagnosis, a middle step between visual examination and biopsy.
"A lot of cancer is diagnosed by the family physician, who may not be as familiar with various skin cancer types," Beetner says. Using only visual inspection, even a trained dermatologist may enter an incorrect diagnosis about 10 percent to 20 percent of the time. The electrical impedance method simply aids a doctor in his diagnosis. "If a physician sees something suspicious," Beetner adds, "he can immediately perform a test to confirm his visual diagnosis."
The procedure will benefit not only physicians, but patients as well. "This will be a benefit to physicians because it will allow them to quickly diagnose a lesion, to find those lesions that the patient should be concerned about," Beetner says. "It’s very quick, inexpensive, non-invasive, and totally painless."
Beetner and his team plan to continue to work with patients to determine the accuracy of the method. In addition to skin cancer detection, this electrical impedance method may have other medical uses. They include use in post-surgical examination to ensure removal of all cancerous cells; to differentiate between different types of cancer; and possibly to detect other kinds of cancer, such as cervical cancer.