The University of Texas at Austin has licensed technology for a probe that would quickly scan skin to detect skin cancer to DermDx Inc., a company based in Fresno, Calif.
To further develop the technology for commercial use, DermDx will sponsor research in Tunnell's laboratory and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where some of the intellectual property for the device originated, said Dr. Sampath Srikanth, chief executive of DermDx.
The device could lessen the need for biopsy, an invasive surgical procedure in which tissue is cut out. Srikanth said that some studies showed that one case of cancer is found for every 40 pigmented skin biopsies performed.
"Patients hate the pain, wait time and anxiety associated with biopsies and would rather not go through a surgical procedure, but they currently have no other options," Srikanth said.
Using a pen-sized probe, weak pulses of light are emitted from the tip onto the skin or tissue and then recaptured by the probe and sent back to a computer system for analysis. The light measures the cellular and molecular signatures of skin cancer without the need for a biopsy or the excision of a tissue sample.
"Within a second, it can take a measurement and tell you whether or not it's cancer," Tunnell said. "And you can move the probe around quickly to different spots of the skin."
Srikanth said the device could be on the market shortly after the development and completion of clinical trials.
Tunnell said a prototype has been tested with 80 patients at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) with good results. His collaborators are Tri Nguyen, director of the Mohs Micrograph and Dermatologic Surgery Clinic at M.D. Anderson, and Jason Riechenberg, clinical director for dermatology at the UTMB.
Tunnell worked with Narasimhan Rajaram, a Ph.D. student in his lab, to develop the technology.
Early funding for developing the device has come from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. It made two Early Career Awards to Tunnell totaling $500,000.