Positioning Arizona for Skin Cancer Breakthroughs

By:
Katy Smith, UA Foundation, Jacob Chinn photo

It’s painless, safe, and fast. With the in vivo reflectance confocal microscope (RCM), University of Arizona Cancer Center (UACC) doctors have the potential to diagnose skin cancer and monitor response to therapy without surgical biopsies. 

“RCM is virtually a live microscope. It images the skin instantly at high resolution,” says Clara Curiel, UACC Skin Cancer Institute clinical director. “We anticipate that in the near future skin biopsies will be replaced, to a large extent, by noninvasive imaging techniques.”

The device is one of very few in the country with three lasers, says Curiel, who also is the Alan and Janice Levin Family Endowed Chair for Excellence in Cancer Research. Curiel was able to strengthen her expertise in the implementation of RCM through a research project in Austria supported by the Levins. 

In 2014, Curiel secured the institute’s RCM instrument with funding from the UA Technology and Research Initiative Fund and the Skin Cancer Prevention Program Project Grant and began using the confocal with patients, some of whom are helping advance ongoing research projects by participating in clinical trials. 

“The patients are so grateful we have this advanced tool to aid in their medical care and to foster the future of skin cancer imaging research,” Curiel says.

One in five Caucasian Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetimes. A registry project previously sponsored by the UACC suggests that Arizona, where year-round sunshine exposes people to potentially excessive amounts of ultraviolet radiation, is among the states with the highest incidence rates.

“Here in Arizona, we owe it to our patients to be at the forefront of skin cancer prevention, early detection, and cutting-edge therapeutics,” Curiel says.

For the past decade, the Skin Cancer Institute has combined the efforts of physicians, researchers, and health educators to prevent, detect, and treat the most common form of cancer. A team of specialists works cooperatively to customize a plan for each patient. 

“We’re pioneers. The Cutaneous Oncology Program is recognized nationwide for its unique multidisciplinary approach to care through a ‘one stop shop’ approach for our skin cancer patients,” Curiel says.

Recently, Curiel took the collaboration beyond medicine by forming a research partnership with colleagues in the colleges of Optical Sciences and Engineering. The group is working to develop new noninvasive imaging technology for skin cancer detection and monitoring. Their ultimate goal is to overcome some of the challenges to the adoption of the RCM technique, as well as to explore complementary imaging technologies to increase the accuracy of noninvasive skin cancer diagnosis.

“This is an exciting time. With access to more sophisticated optical techniques and capacity for data management, we are creating a new paradigm not only in skin cancer, but overall skin-related medical care,” Curiel says.