People can't hear cancer, but a new machine can. Assistant MU Professor Dr. John Viator is working with oncologist Dr. Paul Dale to use ultrasound technology that can hear skin cancer spreading.
"He mentioned this problem of detecting these circulating cancer cells in the blood. And we thought, well, maybe we could use this laser to cause this laser-induced ultrasound to detect these melanoma cells that are traveling through the blood," Viator said.
That's music to the ears of recovering melanoma patients like Vickie Sexton. She had a spot on her back that ended up being skin cancer.
"I looked on the internet, but I didn't see anything that resembled it, and I wasn't really concerned about it. And so I eventually just decided that, you know, this is really something that I should go get checked out," Sexton said.
Her dermatologist biopsied the spot and the lab did find melanoma cells. Further biopsies left a scar on her neck.
"It was really hard to enjoy anything, even my kids. It's a big emotional strain as well as physical," Sexton said.
Despite the cancer being removed, patients like Sexton are always concerned about it happening again, and doctors are too.
"I've seen patients twenty years disease free, and then the disease pops up all over for no apparent reason," Dale said. "Right now there's not a good method to detect metastasis of melanoma other than clinical examination. In other words I do my exam and feel whether or not the metastisis is there in the lymph nodes, or CT scans or PT scans."
The new technology offers a lot of piece of mind with just a little blood work. A blood sample is run through tubes and zapped with a laser. If there are melanoma cells, the machine will hear it and that sound is indicated by a spike shown on the ultrasound.
"With this, you don't have to wait until that large tumor, composed of millions and millions and possibly billions of cells, to show up on that type of scan. With this technology, when you take a blood sample, you're looking for single cells traveling through the bloodstream on their way to create these new tumors," Viator explained.
To give a better idea of the scale of things, imagine the human body is represented by all of the water in a swimming pool. The current technology would be able to detect the equivalent of a few buckets of water, while the new technology would be able to detect the equivalent of just one drop of water.
For now, Sexton plans to keep coming for checkups and she hopes to be able to participate in Viator's study as a patient.
Viator and his team are currently working to get a patient study started. Future plans include making the device available in clinics and looking for a way to use the technology to detect other forms of cancer like breast cancer.
You can contact Dr. Dale at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center by calling (573) 882-8454.