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Terahertz biosensor: Light waves see through skin to detect cancer early

A novel biosensor has harnessed the power of harmless terahertz waves to identify skin cancer early on. 

Terahertz (THz) waves exist between microwave and infrared frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. This THz technology has shown to be a promising frontier in biomedical applications.

This biosensor, developed by Queen Mary University of London and the University of Glasgow, has a high sensitivity for detecting skin cancer compared to other, often time-consuming approaches.

The biosensor leverages these waves to provide a non-invasive method for analyzing underlying tissue properties. 

"Traditional methods for detecting skin cancer often involve expensive, time-consuming, CT, PET scans and invasive higher frequencies technologies," explained Shohreh Nourinovin, postdoctoral research associate at Queen Mary, and the study's first author. 

"Our biosensor offers a non-invasive and highly efficient solution, leveraging the unique properties of THz waves – a type of radiation with lower energy than X-rays, thus safe for humans – to detect subtle changes in cell characteristics," Nourinovin added.  

The design features of the biosensor

Incorporating terahertz imaging technology into a flexible, portable, and reusable sensor like this one has the potential to speed up and make cancer screening processes more comfortable for patients.

According to the news release, the biosensor design includes various features with "tiny, asymmetric resonators on a flexible substrate."

Notably, it has the capacity to detect small changes in cell characteristics, which sets it apart from traditional approaches.

The device assesses a range of parameters, encompassing resonance frequency, transmission magnitude, and a metric known as "Full Width at Half Maximum" (FWHM).

This method provides a more comprehensive depiction of the tissue, improving the capacity to discern between healthy and malignant cells. It also allows us to measure the level of malignancy in the tissue.

Testing of the newly developed biosensor

To determine effectiveness, the biosensor was utilized to distinguish between normal skin cells and basal cell cancer (BCC) cells. 

Interestingly, the sensor successfully discerned between the two types of cells. 

This breakthrough capability holds immense promise for improving patient outcomes by enabling the identification of cancer in its early stages. The biosensor's sensitivity and accuracy in distinguishing between healthy and cancerous cells could save countless lives.

"The implications of this study extend far beyond skin cancer detection. This technology could be used for early detection of various cancers and other diseases, like Alzheimer's, with potential applications in resource-limited settings due to its portability and affordability," added Nourinovin in the press release.

(a) Demonstration of the flexibility of the biosensor. (b-c) fabricated metasurface biosensor under an optical microscope, (d) cultured 3D collagen gel models of BCC in 24-well plates.

According to the World Health Organization, the global incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers is between 2 and 3 million cases each year, with melanoma skin cancers accounting for roughly 132,000 occurrences. Skin cancer accounts for one-third of all cancer diagnoses.

Furthermore, statistics from the Skin Cancer Foundation indicate that one out of every five Americans is likely to develop skin cancer throughout their lifetime.

 The portability and affordability of the biosensor, coupled with its non-invasive nature, make it a promising tool for medical diagnostics in diverse settings.

The biosensor's potential has already garnered attention in the scientific community, with plans for future collaborative research to explore and improve this technology.

The findings were reported in the journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.

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