BOZEMAN -- A recent Montana State University master's graduate is working with doctors at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Tennessee to build a handheld laser microscope that could someday reduce the number of biopsies needed to diagnose skin cancer.
Suspicious spots on the skin often prompt dermatologists to remove skin samples for analysis. These procedures are currently the best way to diagnose skin cancers, said Chris Arrasmith, who recently earned his master's degree and now works as a researcher in MSU's electrical engineering department.
But biopsies are invasive procedures that are often painful. Millions are conducted each year in the United States, and according to the American Cancer Society, most of those biopsies -- as many as 80 percent for some types of cancers -- come back negative.
The handheld microscope could help doctors get a better idea when biopsies are absolutely necessary. That would cut down on the number of biopsies that have to be performed and streamline the process of diagnosing cancers, Arrasmith said.
"Any combination of tools we can provide to enable early detection of any kind of disease is a good thing," said Arrasmith, 25.
Like most microscopes, the MSU-Vanderbilt device uses lenses to look at a patient's skin, but instead of illuminating the skin with normal white light, the device uses laser light.
The laser light is used to form an image of the skin's cellular structure, and it monitors the way a patient's cells change the reflected laser light, Arrasmith said. Those changes to the light can tell scientists the chemical composition of the skin cells -- a process called spectroscopy.
"Within the microscope's image, we can select an area of interest, and from that we can take a spectrum and get chemical data," Arrasmith said.
Doctors would then compare that chemical signature to a database containing the chemical signatures of known cancers to see wheth
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Montana State University