Satellite-based imaging finds anti-melanoma role
Technology used to monitor enemy activity on the battlefield and precisely deliver weapons could help local researchers target a more widespread killer.
The Arizona Cancer Center has teamed with Raytheon Co. to modify existing satellite-based remote imaging technology for use in detecting skin changes that can indicate the presence of skin cancer, said Dr. Clara Curiel, director of the Pigmented Lesion Clinic and Multidisciplinary Oncology Program at the center.
“We’re looking to do earlier detection and find skin cancer when it is in the more curable stage,” she said. “Our goal is to use this for earlier detection to save lives.”
Melanoma, which kills 60,000 in the United States annually, is difficult to treat except in its earliest stages, she said.
Arizona is a hotbed for skin cancer, Curiel said, ranking second in the world after Australia for per-capita skin cancer incidents.
Melanoma accounts for 77 percent of all skin cancer deaths here, according to Arizona Department of Health Services records.
It killed nearly 3 of every 100,000 state residents in 2007.
The two-year, $1.2 million Cancer Center/Raytheon project is funded with a $545,000 research grant from Science Foundation Arizona, with the remainder coming from Raytheon, Curiel said.
Skin feature changes can mean cancer, and doctors must determine which changes warrant further investigation.
Doctors check for changes in lesions and moles by comparing 30 to 35 photos showing the entire body taken earlier with how the patient now looks, she said.
Patients at high risk for melanoma can have 300 to 500 moles and lesions that must be compared with the earlier photos, she said.
“The doctor must make the comparison visually in the clinic,” she said. “The level of accuracy is not the best.”
The new system will use Raytheon’s technology to automatically detect changes in moles and lesions seen in full-body digital image sets taken at different times, Curiel said.
Changes in size, shape and color of lesions and moles will be tracked, she said.
Doctors will still determine which changing skin features are dangerous.
“It’s an aid in detection, not a diagnostic,” she said. “We’re not telling them to biopsy or not biopsy. The doctor will look at the place that changed and then determine if it needs further attention.”
Doctors could compare image sets without the patient being present so patients with no access to dermatologists could still be screened, Curiel said.
People with fast-changing lesions should be photographed every two to three years, while people with more stable lesions should be imaged every five to six years, she said.
Plans call for the new system to be available for use in clinics in three or four years, she said.
Raytheon has been working on self-funded research on the project for about two years, said Karleen Seybold, systems engineer senior manager at Raytheon in Tucson.
Curiel and Seybold are co-principal investigators on the project.
“The human body is a difficult problem,” Seybold said. “The technology we’re adopting is from the remote sensing world, image alignment, aligning two images to see what has changed in the scene.”
The military uses this technology to see when a tank moves on a battlefield, or to help precisely navigate a weapon to a target, she said.
Raytheon plans to license the technology to commercial partners when it is proven, Seybold said.
Citizen reporter Alan Fischer worked as a media relations manager at Raytheon from 2003 to 2007.
Arizona Cancer Center: www.azcc.arizona.edu/