Handheld millimetre-wave diagnostic device could cut biopsies

2 min read

Unnecessary biopsies could be halved with a low-cost handheld device being developed at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

A handheld device being developed at Stevens Institute of Technology can scan skin and detect different types of skin cancer, such as carcinoma (left), squamous cell carcinoma (middle), and actinic keratosis (right)
A handheld device being developed at Stevens Institute of Technology can scan skin and detect different types of skin cancer, such as carcinoma (left), squamous cell carcinoma (middle), and actinic keratosis (right) - Stevens Institute of Technology

According to SIT, around 30 benign lesions are currently biopsied for every case of skin cancer that is found.

“We aren’t trying to get rid of biopsies,” said Negar Tavassolian, director of the Bio-Electromagnetics Laboratory at Stevens. “But we do want to give doctors additional tools and help them to make better decisions.”

The team’s device uses millimetre-wave imaging to scan a patient’s skin. Healthy tissue reflects millimetre-wave rays differently than cancerous tissue, so it is theoretically possible to spot cancers by monitoring contrasts in the rays reflected from the skin. To bring that approach into clinical practice, the researchers used algorithms to fuse signals captured by multiple different antennas into a single ultrahigh-bandwidth image, reducing noise and quickly capturing high-resolution images of even the tiniest mole or blemish.

Spearheaded by Amir Mirbeik Ph.D. ’18, the team used a tabletop version of their technology to examine 71 patients during real-world clinical visits, and found their methods could accurately distinguish benign and malignant lesions in a few seconds. Using their device, Tavassolian and Mirbeik could identify cancerous tissue with 97 per cent sensitivity and 98 per cent specificity.

“There are other advanced imaging technologies that can detect skin cancers, but they’re big, expensive machines that aren’t available in the clinic,” Tavassolian said in a statement. “We’re creating a low-cost device that’s as small and as easy to use as a cellphone, so we can bring advanced diagnostics within reach for everyone.”

Because the team’s technology delivers results in seconds, it could one day be used instead of a magnifying dermatoscope in routine check-ups, giving extremely accurate results almost instantly. “That means doctors can integrate accurate diagnostics into routine check-ups, and ultimately treat more patients,” said Tavassolian, whose work is detailed in Scientific Reports.

Unlike other imaging methods, millimetre-wave rays harmlessly penetrate about 2mm into human skin, so the team’s imaging technology provides a clear 3D map of scanned lesions. Future improvements to the algorithm powering the device could significantly improve mapping of lesion margins, enabling more precise and less invasive biopsying for malignant lesions.

The next step is to pack the team’s diagnostic kit onto an integrated circuit, a step that could soon allow functional handheld millimetre-wave diagnostic devices to be produced for $100 per unit. The team is already working to commercialise their technology and hopes to start putting their devices in clinicians’ hands within the next two years.

“After this proof of concept, we need to miniaturise our technology, bring the price down, and bring it to the market,” said Tavassolian.