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In possible breakthrough, Israeli researchers develop non-invasive test to diagnose melanoma in real-time

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The technology, which was developed by Professor Abraham Katzir, from the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences at Tel Aviv University, uses a rapid and non-invasive method that causes no pain to the patient

By ILANIT CHERNICK

In a first for diagnosing melanoma, researchers from Tel Aviv University have developed an innovative optical technology that can diagnose this deadly form of cancer in real-time.

The technology, which was developed by Professor Abraham Katzir, from the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences at Tel Aviv University, uses a rapid and non-invasive method that causes no pain to the patient. 

“This technology was tried successfully on about one hundred patients in a major hospital in Israel,” Katzir said.
Using special optical fibers that can distinguish between a benign lesion on the skin and a malignant one, the technology is also able “to distinguish between types of skin cancer, such as melanoma, a life-threatening type of cancer, and malignancies that are not as dangerous,” he said.

When it comes to melanoma, which, is a form of skin cancer that if not detected early enough can be deadly, immediate diagnosis can save lives. 

“When a suspicious lesion is found on the skin, during a routine examination, it is removed in a minor surgical procedure and sent to a laboratory for testing,” Katzir explained. “A pathologist diagnoses the lesion and determines whether it is melanoma.” 

According to Katzir, in most cases where melanoma is discovered early, which means when it is still superficial and less than one-millimeter-thick and it is removed, the patient recovers. 

“Late diagnosis, when the melanoma is more than one-millimeter-thick, significantly reduces the chances of recovery and is life-threatening,” he added.

Katzir pointed out that this technology has given them “a kind of ‘fingerprint’ that makes a clear diagnosis of the various lesions possible, by measuring their characteristic ’colors.’”

Continuing, he said that “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, he emphasized, “is unlike the test that is routinely used, which involves surgery, and the pathological diagnosis takes a long time.”

Prof. Katzir using innovative optical technology to diagnose to test for melanoma.
(Photo Credit: Tel Aviv University)

Discussing the inspiration behind the use of optical technology, Katzir said that “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”. 

Explaining further, Katzir said that 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 a melanoma,” he said.

Katzir’s research group developed special optical fibers that are transparent in the infrared region. 

To test out this innovative technology, some 100 patients at hospitals around the country took part in a clinical trial. 

“With the help of the new system, physicists performed measurements of the ‘color’ of each lesion, before it was removed and sent to a pathology laboratory,” he emphasized. “The researchers showed that all of the lesions that were determined by pathologists as being of a certain type, such as melanoma, had a characteristic ’color’ in the infrared.”

He made it clear that through the trial they were able to see that each lesion of a different type had a different “color.”

In a statement, Tel Aviv University said that the group, in collaboration with physicists Professor Yosef Raichlin of Ariel University, Dr. Max Platkov of the Negev Nuclear Research Center, and Svetlana Bassov of Professor Katzir’s group, “developed a system, based on these fibers, which is suitable for the requirements of evaluating skin.”

The researchers then connect one end of this type of fiber to a device that measures the “colors” in the infrared region.
Once the other end is placed lightly onto a lesion of the patient’s skin for a few seconds, the fiber makes it possible to check the “color” of the lesion right away, allowing doctors to immediately see if it is cancerous or not.

Concluding, Katzir stressed that Melanoma is a life-threatening cancer and that it’s very important to diagnose it early on when it is still superficial. 

“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,” he highlighted, “will be to make this technology, which is still expensive, something that will be used in every hospital or clinic.”

Following the success of the study, the researchers plan to confirm the evaluation method on hundreds of patients.

The findings were published in the jorunal Medical Physics.

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