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Melanoma: Catching, Curing Skin Cancer

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ST. LOUIS, MO (Ivanhoe Newswire) - Some say the number of cases is growing at an epidemic rate. In fact, melanoma is the fastest growing cancer in the U.S. Now, science is moving forward to detect it sooner and cure it faster.

We love the sun and we can die from it. Every eight minutes someone in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma.

"Your mind goes all different places, like how is this going to affect my life?" Megan Brinker, a melanoma survivor, told Ivanhoe.

Megan Brinker was told she had stage one melanoma.

"It wasn't anything that looked to me like it was really bad or anything," Megan said.

Early detection was key. Studies show if caught early melanoma can be stopped it its tracks, and now surgery to find it is going 3D.

"Using our technology, we can see the tumor as well as the surrounding blood vessels," Younan Xia, Ph.D., a biomedical engineer at Washington University, explained.

Photoacoustic tomography uses laser light and sound waves to create a 3D image of the cancer inside the body. Tiny gold nanocages show a contrast between malignant and normal tissue. For more aggressive melanoma, doctors are testing a new compound that triggers cancer cells to self-destruct.

"What we manage to do is trick them into thinking they are being attacked or infected by a virus," Maria Soengas, a dermatologist at the Spanish National Cancer Center Research Institute in Madrid, Spain, said.

Megan was one of the lucky ones. She's not one of the 10,000 people melanoma kills every year. These two medical advances could catch and cure even more cases fast. Researchers believe the 3D imaging will be invaluable for detecting and treating a variety of cancers, including breast and prostate cancers.

RESEARCH SUMMARY

BACKGROUND:  Melanoma is the fastest growing cancer in the U.S.  Melanoma is caused by changes in cells called melanocytes, which produce a skin pigment called melanin. Melanin is responsible for skin and hair color.  A scary fact about melanoma is that it can appear on normal skin or start as a mole.  Some moles that have been there since birth can turn into melanoma. 

TYPES:  There are four major types of Melanoma:

  • Superficial spreading melanoma is the most common type. It's usually flat and irregular in shape and color, with different shades of black and brown and is commonly associated with Caucasians.
  • Lentigo maligna melanoma usually occurs in the elderly.  It is most common in sun-damaged skin on the face, neck, and arms. The abnormal skin areas are usually large, flat, and tan with areas of brown.
  • Nodular melanoma usually starts as a raised area that is dark blackish-blue or bluish-red, but some do not have any color.
  • Acral lentiginous melanoma is the least common form. It usually occurs on the palms, soles, or under the nails and is more common in African Americans. Even though melanoma is not as common as other skin cancers, the number of cases is growing at a shocking rate. (Source: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). 

TREATMENT:  Surgery is usually needed to treat melanoma.  The cancer and some surrounding areas are removed in surgery; however, if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other surrounding organs, then the procedure becomes more hazardous.  When this happens, treatments may involve chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation treatments.  Early detection is important in fighting melanoma.  Studies have shown that if it is caught at an early stage, then the cure rate is close to 100 percent.

NEW TECHNOLOGY:  Surgery is now going 3-D to find melanoma at an earlier stage.  It is called photoaccoustic tomography.  It combines strong optical contrast and high ultrasonic resolution to produce a 3-D image.  The images produced help surgeons see a tumor more clearly and improve contrast between malignant and normal tissues.  Tiny gold nanocages show a contrast between malignant tissue and normal tissue (appearing as different colors) (Source:  www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). 

Another new technology for more aggressive melanoma is a new compound that triggers cancer cells into self-destructing.  Cancer cells usually go through a process of dying naturally at the end of their lives (called apoptosis), but sometimes they can bypass this process and multiply resulting in tumors.  Dr Paul Hergenrother, from the University of Illinois in Urbana, and colleagues found that a synthetic compound, called PAC-1, was able to activate cancer cells and "trick" them into "committing suicide" .   With more testing, doctors think that these two new ways to treat and kill cancer will save many lives.  (Source: www.eurekalert.org).

INTERVIEW

Dr. Younan Xia, a Biomedical Engineer now at Georgia Tech, talks about catching and curing melanoma in 3D.

Tell me about the nanostructure technology.

Dr. Xia: The gold nanocages we developed have a very strong absorption, particularly in the thread where you have high transparency for soft tissue. Basically you can penetrate very deeply to see things underneath the skin. In this particular case we can tune the absorption peaks to that particular wavelength. That's the unique thing about the gold nanostructure.

what does that mean relative to melanoma?

Dr. Xia: Melanoma is just one type of cancer we are dealing with actually. In principle this could be applied to all different types of cancer. The only idea is to find the right chemical legion they can put on the surface of a nanocage that can target a specific type of cancer cell.

How does it work?

Dr. Xia: You can functionalize the surface so that it can recognize specific receptors on the cancer cells. They can be targeted. Once they target this to the cancer cells, you can basically increase the absorption of cancer cells. You will see them more clearly.

And there's a lot of mathematics involved?

Dr. Xia: Mathematic wise you have two types of mathematics involved. One is that you can predict the absorption peak position and also the magnitude of the absorption that everything can be calculated. Another is more imaging types of stuff.

What is Nanocages?

Dr. Xia: Nanocages is a very tiny box. Inside it's hollow and at the corners on the surface they have very small holes.

How does it work, what does it do?

Dr. Xia: They can scatter and absorb light at near-infrared wavelengths. In terms of absorption, it could be like one million times stronger than typical molecular dyes. So that's the advantage actually.

How can you see the cancer?

Dr. Xia: This is mainly like a different approach. It is optical imaging modalities, so you don't have to use high energy x-rays to cause damage to the other tissues. You don't have to use radioactive materials.

How much does it excite you?

Dr. Xia: At the beginning, when we started to look at this material, we had no applications in mind. That's very exciting since we can really combine these things together to achieve something that might be useful to the society in a sense.

One day what might this technology be able to do?

Dr. Xia: It can be improved like a cancer diagnosis for example. It can also help surgeons to see the tumor more clearly and with better resolution. In terms of surgery, if you want to remove it you can see the boundary very clearly so you can make sure you can remove the entire thing. We also have other research ongoing that can help us to basically treat cancers. Based on the same mechanism, you can absorb a light convert to heat. Heat will basically cause the tumor cells to die.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:

Lihong Wang, Ph.D.
Department of Biomedical Engineering (Primary)
Washington University in St. Louis
lhwang@biomed.wustl.edu

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