August 4, 2008

New Weapon in War on Skin Cancer

By Jeremy Watson

A SCANNER which can detect the early stages of skin cancer has been made available to patients in Scotland for the first time - at GBP 100 a time.

The device allows doctors to screen and evaluate a mole within seconds and either reassure patients that it is harmless or refer them on for specialist treatment.

At present, diagnosis is usually made by GPs, who rely on their judgment and experience to decide whether or not they think a mole is potentially dangerous and should be looked at by a dermatologist.

But manufacturers say the hand-held MoleMate device instantly analyses changes in the main components of skin and so can help give an early diagnosis.

Although skin cancer is the only form of the disease which is growing in Scotland, the scans are not available on the NHS. The only service is being provided by a private clinic which charges GBP 100 for screening and evaluation.

Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, with cases doubling in the UK over the last 20 years. Skin cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK and in Scotland. Around 7,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed every year.

One in six Scots are believed to be genetically predisposed to skin cancer, and the disease claims 150 lives every year. The most common reason for skin cancer, which claimed the life of Celtic legend Tommy Burns at 51 earlier this year, is exposure to sunlight.

A spokeswoman for Medicalternative, the Edinburgh private clinic offering the scans, said: "MoleMate is a non-invasive, rapid and painless mole screening device that enables a medical practitioner to quickly scan your moles, showing information up to 2mm under the skin. This can assist them in making an instant decision on the health of the mole."

Dr Lindsey Myskow, a part-time NHS GP who runs the screening clinics, said: "We scan the mole for a number of features to see whether it is suspicious or not. The scanner measures these pretty accurately and helps with diagnosis.

"If the patient is worried about a number of moles, we would scan them all. In the main they are benign, but there are some we have to refer on to a specialist.

"This is an added dimension that helps with clinical assessment. If we look at the mole and it is completely fine then we can give that reassurance."

The manufacturer is Cambridge-based Astron Clinica, founded by scientist Symon Cotton in 1998. It says doctors use a "clinically proven scoring system" developed with GP practices and Cambridge University Teaching Hospital to decide whether to refer patients to have a mole removed.

Myskow said: "There is a scale that we work to from 0-12. Anything around six is suspicious."

The scanner technology was developed a decade ago, but the first portable hand-held version was introduced to the medical market at a cost of GBP 3,400 last year. As well as Medicalternative, around 70 other clinics have introduced them in the rest of the UK.

The device uses light wave technology to penetrate 2mm beneath the surface of the skin. Differences in the light waves that return can be used to detect potentially harmful changes in colour, blood flow, the skin pigment melanin and collagen that may signal progression to cancer unless treated. Without the scanner, GPs can only rely on a visual diagnosis.

Carolyn Dawson decided to undergo screening because she has always had a large number of moles on her skin.

"I have always been careful to have them checked out and they have been fine and not suspicious," said the 36-year-old nurse from Edinburgh.

"There are a couple on my leg and neck that I like to keep an eye on.

"The procedure was quick and easy and very reassuring. Nothing was found and it gave me the peace of mind I am looking for.

"They are used a lot in Australia, which has a big problem with skin cancer, and I expect screening like this will become much more popular over here."

Dermatology experts said the device could prove a useful diagnostic aid for GPs. But Dr Michael Edward, head of the dermatology department at Glasgow University, said: "In my experience nothing beats the human eye.

"An experienced GP will be able to give a diagnosis straight away and if in any doubt at all will refer on to a dermatologist."

In the 10 years between 1996 and 2005, skin cancer increased by 43 per cent among men and by 20 per cent in women.

Instant Diagnosis: For graphics see e-pages

On the internet http:www.astronclinica.comproductsmolemate.htm

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