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UArizona building tool for more efficient skin cancer care

UArizona skin cancer.png
Posted at 6:18 PM, Jun 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-27 12:40:19-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — An unfortunate result of Arizona’s abundant sunshine and outdoor recreation opportunities: the state owns one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world.

University of Arizona researchers are building a tool that could improve skin cancer care by making it more efficient.

“Not just the idea of diagnosing early, but also sparing patients from unnecessary skin biopsies that they don’t need to go through, is truly a necessity that we have today,” said Dr. Clara Curiel, UArizona’s Chief of Dermatology.

The team of researchers tells KGUN that typically in biomedical science, patient information, images and tissue samples are all kept in separate databases.

For more than two years, the team has been building a new database known as the “Patient Registry, Imaging Database and Tissue Bank,” or “PRIT,” which links those three together.

“So when scientists or industry partners can access this data, they’re able to retrieve it all at once,” Curiel explained.

“And find information that they need, so that they can design a better solution or a strategy to take care of the needs of their patients,” added Nirav Merchant, director of UArizona’s Data Science Institute.

He clarifies that the process does not involve putting all three types of data in one place, but rather linking them to one another.

“This allows us to use [the systems] what we already had, we just had to stitch it together,” said Merchant.

This strategy, Curiel says, will also address the challenge of tracking skin cancers in the U.S.

She says skin cancer registries only account for melanoma, which can be deadly, but accounts for less than 10 percent of all skin cancers.

“We don’t have the capacity to collect and keep track of all the skin cancers that we have,” she said.

The initial investment in the project was roughly $500,000, Curiel says. The roughly 15-person team consists of researchers, and coordinators who work in clinical settings.

One day, artificial intelligence and machine learning could be added to PRIT in order to quickly recognize patterns in the data.

“If there’s an image that has been taken, is there a similar image and is there a patient that has gone through the same journey?” Merchant proposed. “So using these advanced methods, we are not doing the diagnosis, but rather, we are presenting the information so that the clinicians can make a more holistic diagnosis.”

Nearly 200 local patients needing skin biopsies have already enrolled in PRIT, which has now collected more than 200 images, plus dozens of tissue samples.

Curiel says the eventual goal is to add 1,000 new patients per year, in order to keep growing PRIT and the technology around it.

After additional research, the tool could then be expanded to medical providers in Tucson and beyond.

“As all of this comes together, if it’s not harmonized, it’s very hard to benefit from each other’s body of work,” said Merchant. “What Dr. Curiel is working towards is building a long-term future that starts in Arizona but is meant for the world.”

Ryan Fish is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9 and comes to the Sonoran Desert from California’s Central Coast after working as a reporter, sports anchor and weather forecaster in Santa Barbara. Ryan grew up in the Chicago suburbs, frequently visiting family in Tucson. Share your story ideas and important issues with Ryan by emailing or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.