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UWE experts develop skin cancer detection tool

Engineering experts from the University of the West of England are working on the development of a skin analyser tool that will help enable doctors to diagnose malignant melanoma and other dermatological conditions such as burn severity.

Recent sponsorship to the tune of £650K has been awarded to the consortium composed of UWE, Frenchay Hospital and Astron Clinica Ltd. by the DTI Technology Programme to fund this project entitled 'PhotoDerm'.

Skin Cancer incidence has been growing since the 1930's with current figures showing 6,000 people diagnosed and 1,600 dying in the UK alone every year.

One of the problems facing primary health care practitioners is that most do not have the specialist expertise to enable an accurate diagnosis of skin cancer so most patients are referred to specialist units in hospitals. As the vast majority of referrals are found to be non-malignant the diagnosis of skin cancer is costly to the NHS as specialists spend significant time on diagnosis.

This could soon be set to change thanks to a novel application by experts in photometric stereo imaging or 3D imaging at UWE's Machine Vision Laboratory, part of the Centre for Innovative Manufacturing and Machine Vision Systems (CIMMS). Dr Melvyn Smith, Director of CIMMS at UWE explains, “We are collaborating with Astron Clinica and specialists at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol to produce a new low cost hand held skin analyser tool that will improve the vision of the clinician. We aim to make explicit the characteristics of the appearance of the skin that are not obvious to the naked eye. This will make it easier for a non specialist to make an early diagnosis.

“The skin analyser tool will also be useful in burns units as the 3D imaging will enable specialists to assess severity of burns through enabling clearer observation of burn depth. The tool builds on previous research by academics in CIMMS who developed a rather cumbersome tool some years ago. We aim to refine the principles adopted in the earlier model so that the imaging available to the practitioners is easier to observe.

“The 'Skin Analyser' prototype looks a little bit like a hair dryer which is positioned over the affected area of skin. A high resolution camera is directed at the skin and light shines from six different light sources surrounding the lense to give an illusion of 3 D when the image is observed on a computer screen via a USB link. This is called 6-light photometric stereo and we intend to develop this idea by fusing this information with a hand held spectrometer developed by Astron Clinica.

Skin cancer experts at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol have working with the UWE team to help ensure that the tool they develop fits the needs of practitioners. Mr Robert Warr, Consultant Plastic Surgeon specialising in malignant melanoma thinks that the skin analyser may have the potential to be very useful in assisting future diagnosis by non specialists, he said, “If successful, this tool will help both the general practitioner and the specialist in differentiating between benign and malignant lesions of the skin. Skin cancer is becoming increasingly common and any device aiding this often difficult diagnosis would certainly be extremely valuable.

Dr Smith concludes, “It is anticipated that the skin analyser may ultimately provide primary health care practitioners and hospitals with a low cost tool that will save lives as more health professionals will be able to assist in accurate diagnosis without unnecessary referral to specialist skin cancer units in hospitals.”

Lesley Drake | alfa
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