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Imaging blood vessels holds key to cracking skin cancers

Optical coherence tomography (OCT) has now been used to non-invasively map out the network of tiny blood vessels beneath the outer layer of a patients’ skin, potentially revealing telltale signs of disease.

Such high resolution 3D images could one day help doctors better diagnose, monitor, and treat skin cancer and other skin conditions. Researchers from the Medical University Vienna (MUW) in Austria and the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, used OCT on a range of different skin conditions. They included a healthy human palm, allergy-induced eczema on the forearm, dermatitis on the forehead, and two cases of basal cell carcinoma – the most common type of skin cancer – on the face. Compared to healthy skin, the network of vessels supplying blood to the tested lesions showed significantly altered patterns.

‘The condition of the vascular network carries important information on tissue health and its nutrition,’ said Rainer Leitgeb, a researcher at MUW and the study’s principal investigator. ‘Currently, the value of this information is not utilised to its full extent.’

The research was published in the most recent edition of the Optical Society’s open-access journal Biomedical Optics Express. The team’s images of basal cell carcinoma showed a dense network of unorganised blood vessels, with large vessels abnormally close to the skin surface. The larger vessels branch into secondary vessels that supply blood to energy-hungry tumour regions. The images, together with information about blood flow rates and tissue structure, could yield important insights into the metabolic demands of tumours during different growth stages.

Ophthalmologists have used OCT since the 1990s to image different parts of the eye and the technology has recently attracted increased interest from dermatologists.

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