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Tunnell Takes Home SXSW Interactive Innovation Award

close up of hand holding three in one probe to detect cancer

The 3-in-1 probe combines Raman spectroscopy, diffuse reflectance spectroscopy, and laser-induced fluorescence spectroscopy.

A noninvasive, 3-in-1 skin cancer detection device developed by biomedical engineering researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin took home top honors in the "SciFi No Longer" category at the 18th annual SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards on March 17.

The 3-in-1 device could potentially save billions in U.S. health care costs annually by eliminating the need for most biopsies.

Designed by a team of researchers led by James Tunnell, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the device combines three ways of using light to provide a faster, more accurate skin cancer screening tool.

Tunnell's team estimates that 25 negative biopsies are performed for every one case of skin cancer detected, translating to a cost of $6 billion to the U.S. health care system each year. The 3-in-1 device reduces the high number and cost of negative biopsies by giving physicians a clearer picture of which skin lesions are most likely cancerous.

The SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards' "SciFi No Longer" category honors "the coolest scientific achievement or discovery that, before 2014, was only possible in science fiction." Approximately the size of a pen, the 3-in-1 device can noninvasively screen for abnormal skin cells in a lesion in less than five seconds. It is the first probe of its kind to be inexpensive enough for use in clinics and doctors' offices

The Cockrell School team has partnered with Seton Healthcare Family to conduct clinical trials of the 3-in-1 device this spring. Dr. Jason Reichenberg, Seton dermatologist and clinical director of dermatology for the University of Texas Physicians Group, is leading the testing.

The 3-in-1 device has also gained recognition among the medical community. On March 15, Tunnell was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering for "exceptional contributions to the development of imaging and spectroscopy devices for the early detection and treatment of cancer."

View complete list of the 2015 SXSW Innovation Awards finalists and winners.