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Listening to the Sound of Skin Cancer

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia can now detect the spread of skin cancer cells through the blood by literally listening to their sound//. The unprecedented, minimally invasive technique causes melanoma cells to emit noise, and could let oncologists spot early signs of metastases -- as few as ten cancer cells in a blood sample -- before they even settle in other organs. The results of the successful experimental tests appear in the October 15 issue of the journal Optics Letters, published by the Optical Society of America.

The team's method, called photoacoustic detection, combines laser techniques from optics and ultrasound techniques from acoustics, using a laser to make cells vibrate and then picking up the characteristic sound of melanoma cells. In a clinical test, doctors would take a patient's blood sample and separate the red blood cells and the plasma. In a healthy person, the remaining cells would be white blood cells, but in a melanoma patient the sample may contain cancer cells. To find out, doctors would put the sample in saline solution and expose it to rapid-fire sequences of brief but intense blue-laser pulses, each lasting just five billionths of a second.

In lab tests, the Missouri-Columbia team was able to detect melanoma cells obtained from actual patients, showing that the method can spot as few as ten cells in saline solution. The dark, microscopic granules of melanin contained in the cancer cells absorb the energy bursts from the blue laser light, going through rapid cycles of expanding as they heat up and shrinking as they cool down. These sudden changes generate loud cracks -- relative to the granules' size -- which propagate in the solution like tiny tsunamis.

The sound waves produced by melanin are high-frequency ultrasounds, meaning that they cannot be heard by the human ear, even if amplified. However, researchers can pick them up with special microphones and analyze them with a compute
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