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Scientists Research New Device to Diagnose Skin Cancer

Read Time: 4 minutes

Doctor holding a URKSIN device over his wrist; the device is a small rectangular box with a red tab extended from on one end to press against the skin

In the United States alone, about 3.3 million people are diagnosed with basal and squamous cell cancers (skin cancers) per year. Skin cancer is still detected using visual examination, a method of limited reliability for early detection, subtype determination, or measuring the extent of skin invasion. Researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and the University of Utah (U of U) have created a device, named URSKIN, that exploits changes in the electrical properties of skin that occur during cancer cell development by using a technique called non-visual electrical impedance demography (EID). This research was published in the journal JID Innovations.

EID measures the opposition of electrical current related to skin cancer specifically.

“URSKIN applies a high-frequency, painless electrical current through the skin of interest,” says Benjamin Sanchez-Terrones, PhD, cancer center member at HCI and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the U of U. “Physiological alterations in cancerous skin tissue then generate a unique voltage signature that is different from clinically normal skin.”

Benjamin Sanchez-Terrones, PhD and Doug Grossman, MD, PhD standing in a lab
Benjamin Sanchez-Terrones, PhD | Doug Grossman, MD, PhD

Led by Sanchez-Terrones and Doug Grossman, MD, PhD, physician scientist at HCI and professor of dermatology at the U of U, the pilot study tested the new device on 18 patients who already had biopsy-confirmed basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer.

“Clinical presentation of basal cell carcinoma can be subtle,” says Grossman. “It would be useful to have a non-invasive device to detect basal cell carcinoma at its earliest stage and also to be able to determine the depth of invasion to guide whether a biopsy should be performed and what type of biopsy is needed to fully assess the tumor.”

Four different EID measurements were taken on each patient to assess the electrical properties of the basal cell carcinoma and the normal skin around it. URSKIN was able to detect significant differences between basal cell carcinoma and the healthy skin next to it. The next steps for the device are to study more basal cell carcinoma patients to determine how well the device can distinguish between subtypes and to investigate its ability to identify other skin cancers, such as squamous cell carcinoma.

“Compared to visual examination, URSKIN is low-cost, easily applied, quantitative, and objective, enabling the measurements of standardized electrical values of the skin,” says Sanchez-Terrones. “This newly gathered information from a measurement can be leveraged to increase physicians’ confidence and help overcome current diagnostic hurdles.”

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute, including P30 CA042014, Huntsman Cancer Foundation, and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the U of U.

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About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is the National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center for Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming. With a legacy of innovative cancer research, groundbreaking discoveries, and world-class patient care, we are transforming the way cancer is understood, prevented, diagnosed, treated, and survived. Huntsman Cancer Institute focuses on delivering the highest standard of care and the most advanced treatments, ensuring world-class cancer care is available to all communities in the area we serve. We have more than 300 open clinical trials and 250 research teams studying cancer at any given time. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center. Our scientists are world-renowned for understanding how cancer begins and using that knowledge to develop innovative approaches to treat each patient’s unique disease. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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