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A handheld gadget used to scan for diseases in the sci-fi series Star Trek could soon become reality, with a new Kiwi study targeting our high rates of skin cancer.
In New Zealand, where skin cancer rates are four times that of the UK and US, one person dies from the disease each day on average.
While five-year survival rates for patients diagnosed early was around 98%, this dropped sharply to just 16% for advanced cases, making early diagnosis critical.
A group of researchers have now conceived a smarter, faster way to diagnose suspicious lesions.
The team of doctors and scientists will work together in the University of Auckland's Photon Factory and in clinics like Middlemore Hospital's See and Treat to create a new device, based on a combination of advanced photonics and sophisticated data analysis.
"We're developing a handheld device that you can use to can scan your body for different types of skin cancers," Photon Factory researcher Dr Michel Nieuwoudt said.
"It incorporates an invisible laser and the latest technology, so that it will more accurate than any other method used so far."
Such a reliable, non-invasive option would offer clinicians an alternative way to diagnose those patients opposed to biopsies.
"Advances in photonics - the technology of manipulating light - is allowing us to achieve some amazing things for human health," said Professor Cather Simpson, the Photon Factory's award-winning director.
"We hope to create a completely portable, hand-held device that uses light to look at a bit of skin or a worrisome mole and tell you whether it's something you need to see a doctor about."
The project has been backed with a million-dollar grant from the Government's Endeavour Fund for research.
Prof Simpson likened the concept to Star Trek's medical "tricorder", which was used by doctors in the cult TV series to scan their patients.
"How cool is that?"
She said skin cancer rates shouldn't be something for New Zealand to be a "world leader" in.
"Our ambitious goal is to be world leaders in early detection and diagnosis of skin cancers.
"We will succeed when we have better health outcomes for all New Zealanders."