New device could prevent unnecessary biopsies


As an avid runner, Marcie Schade logs plenty of miles under the East Bay sun. But a decade ago, while she was eight months pregnant, the sun caught up with her.

"The biopsy was about this big; I ended up having 40 staples in my arm, it was a big scar on my arm, it was Stage 1 melanoma," she said.

Schade still carries that scar and a growing number of smaller ones, evidence of her ongoing battle to stay a step ahead of potential skin cancer.

"I'm here at least once every six months; he does a body scan on me and often times he finds things he has to biopsy and I've got the scars to show it," she said.

But today, Danville dermatologist Dr. Jerome Potozkin is going to check out several small moles on Schade's skin using a new non-invasive technology. It promises to cut the number of biopsies Schade undergoes.

"It's designed, not as a screening tool for all moles, but suspicious moles that we kind of want to get a computerized second opinion on," Potozkin said.

The recently approved device is called MelaFind. It collects images several layers into the skin, by combining multiple light waves, with a photon sensor. The result is a multi-dimensional look at the makeup of individual skin lesions, including layers not visible to the naked eye.

"What it does is it analyzes the degree of asymmetry and disorganization of pigment throughout multiple layers in the skin," Potozkin said.

After the images are acquired, the software uses sophisticated algorithms to produce a score.

"We know from clinical studies that the average score for melanoma is about 3.5; if something's zero of below, we know almost certainly it's benign," Potozkin said.

Still, there are limitations; the device does not currently spot common non-melanoma cancers such as basal and squamous cell carcinomas. Potozkin says it's best use is as an added tool to confirm a dermatologists clinical judgment on questionable lesions.

Alison Fingerut comes for regular screenings since undergoing surgery for melanoma on her shoulder.

"So anything that could tell me there's an irregularity on me or my husband or children would be fabulous," she said.

A single scan costs $175 and is not covered by insurance.

In Schade's case, the scan did offer the benefit of peace of mind without additional scars.

The optical system used in the MelaFind device was actually adapted from a defense technology, originally developed to identify potential military targets.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.

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