As an adult on the far side of middle age who lives in the South, I have an annual dermatology checkup. Most years my doctor finds a questionable spot or two on my skin. I suspect he can tell whether an area is a likely concern on visual inspection, but he is willing to err on the side of caution and usually recommends taking a biopsy to send to a lab for analysis. So he sprays the area with lidocaine and digs out a small piece of me to ship out. About a week later the office calls with the results, which so far have been good; the lesions have all been benign. Studies of biopsy results report that 70 to 80% of biopsies are negative, meaning that they rule out cancer.

Negar Tavassolian, director of the Stevens Institue of Technology Bio-Electromagnetics Laboratory, and postdoctoral fellow Amir Mirbeik-Sabzevari have developed a technology to determine whether lesions are benign or cancerous using the same type of shortwave rays used in cellphones and airport security scanners. According to the researchers, their scanning technology has the potential to reduce unnecessary biopsies by up to 50%. The key to their technology was the finding that cancerous tissue reflects approximately 40% more energy than healthy cells.

In proof-of-concept testing, the Stevens team found their millimeter-wave image (MMWI) tissue mapping technology is as accurate as lab testing. The next goal is to develop a handheld device based on the technology. Tavassolian and Mirbeik-Sabzevari believe manufacturing costs could be less than $1,000 per unit and the MMWI devices do not require a trained operator. The Stevens researchers envision the devices placed in pharmacies so people get fast checkups and see a doctor if necessary for follow-up if necessary.