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The Future of Skin Cancer Detection - Microbiopsies!

One of the most common types of cancer out there is skin cancer, which is often identified through unusual moles or spots that appear o...

One of the most common types of cancer out there is skin cancer, which is often identified through unusual moles or spots that appear on the surface of the skin. Up until now, invasive biopsy procedures have been used to find out whether or not such a skin blemish is actually a symptom of skin cancer. However, an Australian team of scientists has now created a microbiopsy device that's completely painless, much less invasive, and which doesn't leave any scars. Keep reading to find out all about it!

Traditional biopsies can take on a number of forms: Doctors might excise a large skin sample using a scalpel, punch a hole in the skin to remove a circle of flesh, or even shave a layer of skin off. Whichever process they use, patients will typically end up with a wound that's a few millimeters wide and can be as deep as 5mm. Since such biopsies typically leave scars and might even require stitches, such procedures are far from ideal, especially for sensitive places the face.

That's why Tarl Prow, a research professor at the University of South Australia's Future Industries Institute, decided to invent a device that takes skin samples in a far less invasive way. The needle used in the microbiopsies is merely 0.5mm wide, and it only requires a piece of skin that's 0.4mm deep and 0.15mm wide to be excised. Just for the sake of comparison, the finger prick needles that diabetics use can go up to 4mm deep.

Image source: Tarl Prow

In the tests Prow's team have carried out so far, they've found that the small puncture marks usually heal within 7 days, leaving no scar tissue at all. The procedure also causes the patient very little pain, which means that it is even suitable for children, and anesthesia may not even need to be used. It is also a lot faster than a regular biopsy, meaning that more tests can be run and a patient's health can be better monitored over time.

"Many of us, when we reach a certain age, have a lot of these pink spots on sun-exposed areas, and you just can't go in and biopsy all of those with conventional techniques," Prow said. "So the idea with the microbiopsy is we can go in on the face, on the head, where you don't want to have a surgical procedure, take a small sample and see whether or not it's malignant."

Image source: Tarl Prow
With a single microbiopsy around 200 skin cells are collected, which is more than enough to identify most of the common types of skin cancer. The team also believes that it can be used to detect other types of diseases as well. Researchers at the Technical University of Munich are currently testing out the devices on rashes in infants.
Additionally, researchers in Brazil are using it to search for parasitic canine infections, while researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have used it to test for various diseases in Africa.

The microbiopsy devices will be manufactured by Trajan Scientific and Medical, and Prow's team is already making preparations for a huge clinical trial to begin by the end of 2019. They hope to have an approved diagnostic test available by 2023.

Prow said that "the challenge is really to scale up the manufacture, and develop the kind of pathology kits that we need to support different diseases, starting with skin cancer."