Researchers develop skin cancer test

April 1, 2009 6:10:34 AM PDT
Malignant melanoma is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer, and it's also one of the most commonly misdiagnosed. But now researchers at UCSF have developed a far more accurate test for diagnosing this skin cancer that could save thousands of lives

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Is this a cancerous melanoma or a mole? What about this one? Even for trained pathologists viewing biopsies under a microscope, a diagnosis is not always clear-cut.

Melanoma researcher Dr. Mohammed Kashani-Sabet from UCSF Melanoma Center said the stakes are high.

"Melanoma is a deadly form of skin cancer and when it shows up in its later stages, the advanced stages, the treatments that we have are not very effective. So really our best defense against melanoma right now is to catch it early," said Dr. Kashani-Sabet.

Now he and his team have developed a test to distinguish malignant melanomas from harmless moles.

After discovering that certain proteins are present in higher amounts in melanomas than in moles, they used special dyes to highlight those proteins in skin biopsies.

"We looked at these five proteins initially in 500 moles and melanomas and found that these markers, the proteins, were accurate in diagnosing these cases in about 92 percent of the time," said Dr. Kashani-Sabet.

They ran their new test on 24 separate samples known to have been misdiagnosed. They found the test would have corrected those misdiagnoses 75 percent of the time.

"That would suggest that this test that we've developed could prevent about three quarters of the errors that could come up from looking at skin biopsy slides and specimens," said Dr. Kashani-Sabet.

While there are no hard statistics on how often melanomas are misdiagnosed, it is the second most common cause of cancer malpractice suits in the U.S. behind breast cancer.

The University of California has patented the test and there is already a company working on commercializing it, so the researchers hope it will be in widespread use within two years.

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