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HealthWatch: Surgery-Less Skin Cancer Detection

NEW YORK (CBS 2) -- Malignant melanoma is the deadliest of all skin cancers, killing nearly 10,000 Americans last year. It's very curable if caught at an early stage, which usually involves surgical biopsies, but Dr. Max Gomez found a new type of tape that may help patients avoid going under the knife.

Medical-Grade Tape
Medical-Grade Tape (credit: CBS 2)

It's medical-grade adhesive tape. The reason this experimental technique is a big deal is that melanoma can metastasize when it's very small, so dermatologists will biopsy every suspicious-looking mole or freckle to make sure they catch it early.

Here's a better way.

"I'm someone who spends a lot of time at the beach in the summer, said Lilli Robbins. She knows that all that sun can lead to skin cancer, so she watches for any changes, like a new freckle or mole. "I'm someone who spends a lot of time at the beach in the summer."

"There's this smaller one to the side, which just came out within the last year. So, that's concerning to me," she said.

Normally, checking to see if that new freckle might be a melanoma would mean a surgical biopsy, cutting a piece out and looking at the cells under a microscope.

"I'm a little reluctant to have something on my nose just sliced off because it's such a prominent feature of my face," she said.

And even in less obvious areas, multiple moles can mean lots of biopsies. So dermatologists often do an average 40 biopsies for every melanoma that they find because no one wants to miss a potentially-lethal melanoma.

Instead of a biopsy, however, Robbins could soon choose to have a tape test as a best acne treatment type alternative. The special tape pulls off superficial cells from the suspicious area.

That tape is then sent off to the dermtech lab that runs a genetic analysis on it, looking for a characteristic pattern of RNA in the cells.

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A study just published in the British Journal of Dermatology found the test to be 100-percent accurate in detecting melanomas.

"Much more accurate than any dermatologist, much more accurate than any noninvasive tool that we have to this date," said dermatologist Dr. Mitchell Kline.

"I didn't realize how serious skin cancer could be, I was always assumed, 'Oh you just get it taken off, you don't really die from it'," said melanoma patient Melissa Marks.

Marks was in her 20s when doctors discovered a melanoma on her arm. Removal left her with a huge scar but she's cured.

"Early detection, 100-percent saved my life," she said.

The rate of false positives for the tape test is only about 12-percent, which means that about one in eight tests says melanoma when it's not. Dr. Kline said that's actually pretty low and and much better than missing a fatal cancer.

The test is awaiting FDA approval.

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