December 17, 2010
New, high resolution images suggest that the location and amount of skin pigments could tell pathologists whether a mole has turned cancerous.
Skin cells contain two kinds of pigments or melanins: pheomelanin, which is reddish or yellow, and eumelanin, which is dark and brownish.
Now, Duke researchers Tom Matthews, Warren Warren and their colleagues have created a new laser-based scanning method to take high resolution images of the skin pigments and map the location of the melanins within the skin's layers.
"We’ve found that melanin’s structure is fairly orderly in healthy cells,” says Matthews, a graduate student in chemistry. “You can think of it as sidewalks in a city. No matter how curvy the road is, everyone follows the sidewalks.”
When the pattern breaks down, "we know the melanins are unhealthy or misbehaving, like people walking in the streets and poking into buildings they shouldn’t be in. They’re just everywhere," he explains.
The cells that make the skin's pigments usually sit at the base of the epidermis, or top layer of the skin. The new images show that when these cells begin to migrate upward into the top layers of the epidermis, away from its base where they belong, the skin is unhealthy. The team has submitted the work to Science Translational Medicine.
The new technique offers pathologists another way to check their diagnoses of skin cancer. For now, the suspicious skin will still have to be removed from a patient and then scanned. But as the technology develops, the tool could be used at the bedside, avoiding the need for biopsies altogether.
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