Kim Ellis is a success story for the early detection of skin cancer.
The North Delta woman has known for years that she has a very high risk for it, ever since her dermatologist warned her in 1983 she would need to keep a close eye on the hundreds of moles on her body.
In February 2011, Ellis said her current dermatologist detected an early stage melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. While the melanoma was removed weeks later, she said she began searching the internet looking for any kind of product that would help with early detection.
"Once you have one (cancer), you are a higher risk of having more," she said.
Eventually she found a post about a new technology aimed at the early detection and prevention of skin cancers, and from Vancouver no less.
The Verisante Aura scan was developed as a joint project by UBC, the B.C. Cancer Agency and Vancouver General Hospital.
When Ellis learned of the Aura scan, it wasn't yet available to the public, so she tracked down a doctor who was involved in the project - the same dermatologist who had given her that warning all those years ago. He invited her to have a scan, and the spot on her chest that had been bothering her tested as a possible problem area.
"I ran to my dermatologist's office - literally. It's not far away," Ellis said.
The doctor looked at the area and said it didn't look that bad, but agreed to take a biopsy anyway. It turned out that the flagged area was a squamous cell carinoma, another form of skin cancer.
Ellis said she was lucky that it too was at an early stage and easily treated, thanks to the Aura scan.
"It's an amazing piece of equipment." The Aura is a handheld probe that is held against the skin while a low-intensity laser light reads the spot, which takes about a second per scan, said one of its inventors.
Dr. Harvey Lui is a dermatologist who works for UBC, the B.C. Cancer Agency and Vancouver General Hospital, and who studies the effects of light on the skin.
"It's very satisfying obviously that what started out as a simple research project (about 14 years ago) to try to learn something more about the skin and light has now culminated in a technique that can actually help patients," he said.
In essence, he explained, the probe's weak laser light bounces off the skin and the different structures within it. What the machine looks for is called a Raman signal.
"It's intrinsically very weak, but if you can find that Raman signal, then it tells you a lot about the underlying composition of the tissue you're probing," said Lui.
The signal is inherently so weak that before the Aura, it would take about a half hour to scan one single spot.
The breakthrough represented by Aura is that it can isolate the Raman signal extremely quickly, meaning a single mole can be scanned in a second.
That's a blessing for someone like Ellis who has about a thousand moles, and often has several removed every time she has them checked.
But it's not just for people with a lot of moles, said Lui. There are a number of factors that increase the risk of skin cancer, such as having very fair skin, blond or red hair in your family, freckles and intermittent exposure to sun.
"There's no question, no matter what people like to think, that ultraviolet light is the number-one factor for people to get skin cancer," he said.
"If people didn't bathe themselves in ultraviolet light outdoors as much we wouldn't see skin cancer so much."
And that's regardless of how light or dark a person's skin colour is, he added.
In time, Lui and the other creators of the Aura scan believe its use in conjunction with regular visits to a dermatologist will help to reduce the overall number of biopsies needed to detect and prevent skin cancer.
Verisante Aura scans have been installed in five clinics across Canada so far, with more planned. For more information on the scan, as well as skin cancer, see www.verisante.com/aura/.
Photo: Kevin Hill / Kim Ellis is a melanoma survivor who has recently experienced a new non-invasive skin cancer detection device.;
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