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Can airport security scanner technology help detect skin cancer?

The technology that is used in airport security scanners has the potential to be a skin cancer diagnostic tool, a scientist is claiming.

The scanners use so-called terahertz radiation ("t-rays"), which has the ability to look through human skin and tissue. T-rays are considered non-ionizing, similar to visible light. That means the rays don't have enough energy to remove electrons from molecules, which means they won't mutate our cells.

"We can take an image of the suspected area on the skin surface and under the skin surface at different depths to see if there is anything that looks totally different under the normal tissue," Dr. Anis Rahman, the chief technology officer of Applied Research and Photonics, explained to the press on Wednesday.

Rahman discussed the topic at the 246th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Indianapolis.

The research is considered preliminary since it hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The technology could be especially useful in finding early signs of malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. This disease often starts in the pigment-producing cells located in the deepest part of the outer layer of the skin. Changes begin to occur at this location long before people start seeing the strange mole symptoms on the visible part of the skin.

About 76,690 new melanomas will be diagnosed in 2013 in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.

T-rays are special because they only go through a few millimeters of cloth and other non-metallic material so there isn't much deep damage. This makes them ideal to look at what is inside medications, to look under clothing during routine airport checks and to check to see what is underneath paintings and other artwork.

Rahman said more research needs to be done, but t-rays show much promise. They may be able to find early signs of tooth decay, figure out how much pesticides are on produce, find problems with tablet coatings, find weapons under clothing and show how effective skin cosmetics are.

Eventually, Rahman said he believes it will be possible for a surgeon to use a handheld device that emits t-rays to scan over an area that had a tumor removed to see if there are other cancerous cells that are lurking in the surrounding tissues.

"You can see what is inside the artery wall or inside the tumor or associated areas," he explained.

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