Skin cancer is the most common form of the disease, and while it might make its presence known in the form of moles or strange spots, it usually takes a biopsy to confirm whether the mark is malignant or not. Now, an Australian team has developed a microbiopsy device that's far less invasive, basically painless, and won't leave a scar.

A biopsy is a fairly routine procedure, but collecting large enough samples of skin cells can be unpleasantly invasive. The process can take several forms: Doctors might shave a thin layer off the top of a suspicious section of skin, use a hole punch-like device to remove a circular section or cut a larger segment out using a scalpel. Either way, the resulting wound can be a few millimeters wide and up to 5 mm deep, which may require stitches and usually leaves a small scar. That's not ideal for highly-visible parts of the body, like the face.

With that in mind, Tarl Prow, currently a Research Professor at the University of South Australia's Future Industries Institute, set out to design a device that could take skin samples less invasively. The microbiopsy needle is half a millimeter wide, and the piece of skin that it takes is about 0.15 mm wide and 0.4 mm deep. By comparison, Prow says the finger prick needles used by diabetics go 3 to 4 mm deep.

In tests so far, that tiny puncture mark has been found to completely heal within a week, and leave no scar whatsoever. The procedure is less painful than a regular biopsy too, so local anesthesia could be reduced or done away with entirely and it can be performed on kids. The microbiopsy device also makes the procedure faster, allowing more of the tests to be run and the health of a patient monitored better over time.

"Many of us, when we reach a certain age, have a lot of these pink spots on sun-exposed areas, and you just can't go in and biopsy all of those with conventional techniques," Prow tells New Atlas. "So the idea with the microbiopsy is we can go in on the face, on the head, where you don't want to have a surgical procedure, take a small sample and see whether or not it's malignant."

With each prick of the microbiopsy, the device collects about 200 skin cells, which is enough to identify certain biomarkers for common types of skin cancers. While it can pick up the presence of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, the team says that melanomas are a different story, since their biomarkers are harder to pin down.

Although it will primarily be used to detect skin cancers, the microbiopsy device could – and has – been used for other diseases as well. Prow says that colleagues at the Technical University of Munich are conducting a trial of the devices to identify rashes in infants, a team from Hebrew University have tested for diseases in developing African countries, and researchers in Brazil are currently using it to look for parasite infections in dogs.

Manufacturing of the microbiopsy devices will be handled by Trajan Scientific and Medical, and Prow and his team are currently preparing for a large clinical trial that may start as soon as next year. After that, the team hopes to have an approved diagnostic test available around 2023.

"For us, the challenge is really to scale up the manufacture, and develop the kind of pathology kits that we need to support different diseases, starting with skin cancer," Prow tells us.

Sources: University of South Australia, US Patent Office

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