A novel medical scanner which is expected to transform the diagnosis of skin cancer, arthritis and other diseases has been developed by University of St Andrews scientists.
Using technology originally designed to guide missiles to their chosen targets, Dr Duncan Robertson from the University’s Photonics Innovation Centre has developed an advanced prototype imager which images body temperature below the surface of the skin. The device will enable earlier diagnosis of vascular disease and skin cancer at reduced surgical cost.
The device, the first of its kind in the UK, was officially handed over to Ninewells Hospital, Dundee today (Friday 26th March), where it will begin trials under the direction of staff from TUH (Tayside University Hospitals) and the University of Dundee.
The “Medical Imager for Sub- Surface Temperature Mapping¿ (MISTM) maps body temperature approximately one millimetre beneath the skin. This is crucial because the skin surface temperature can be very variable, masking the underlying tissue temperature. For example, when melanomas develop, “hotspots” are formed under the skin and by the time discolouration is visible on the skin, the tumour is quite far advanced. It is hoped that the trials will show how well the scanner can detect these, working like a heat camera, and producing a result in just a few minutes. Variations in temperatures beneath the skin are clearly shown in colourful digital images generated by the scanner.
The passive scanner – which operates using millimetre wave technology – is inherently safe, non-contacting, non-invasive and easy to operate by non- specialists. Unlike an X-ray, it does not emit radiation. Ultimately, lower cost basic versions of the device could be used in health centres whilst higher performance, higher cost versions would be used in hospitals. It can also image through clothes and bandages, meaning that patients could be scanned without exposing their wounds to infection such as MRSA.
Dr Robertson explained “In the wake of 9/11, this technology is being developed vigorously around the world for the purpose of detecting weapons hidden under people’s clothing, since millimetre waves can see right through fabric. We’re taking that principle and applying it to medical imaging. Monitoring how wounds or burns heal without removing the dressings would be a real benefit.”
As well as skin cancer, it could be used to resolve blood flow ambiguities in patients with Raynaud’s Syndrome, or detect whether skin tissue is “ready” for plastic surgery. The scanner could also be used for veterinary procedures.
The device promises to be a more reliable method than existing technologies used to measure body temperature such as infrared (IR) imaging and microwave thermography (MWT), both of which have restrictions. IR can only map temperatures at the skin’s surface and is sensitive to conditions such as sweating. Whilst MWT can measure at greater depths, it uses contact probes, cannot form true images and is very time-consuming.
The MISTM scanner also has the potential to slash healthcare costs since it produces digital images and therefore uses no film or consumables.
Dr Colin Fleming, Consultant Dermatologist at Ninewells Hospital, said:
‘In Tayside, which is scarcely the sunshine state of Britain, doctors still have to perform 6,500 skin cancer biopsies every year. Each costs £100, but nine out of 10 turn out to be false alarms. Just reducing that bill could have a major impact on healthcare budgets.’
NOTE TO EDITORS:
DR ROBERTSON IS AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW TODAY ON 01334 467307.
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