Mrs Leslie Shaw

Melanoma diagnoses are on the rise across the nation. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, one in 59 men and one in 73 women could develop melanoma in their lifetime. It’s the most serious type of skin cancer.

“Nova Scotia has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the country,” says Dr. Richard Langley, professor and director of research in Dalhousie Medical School’s Division of Dermatology. “This dangerous form of skin cancer is now the eighth most common cancer in Canada. Fortunately, if treated in the early stages of diagnosis, melanoma has a 90 per cent survival rate.”

Investing in diagnosis, treatment and research

Mrs. Leslie Shaw, a Nova Scotian who spent summers in the sun as a lifeguard in her teens, has had seven melanomas removed over the past 15 years. The first time, she waited eight months to see a dermatologist, over two months to receive the results of her biopsy, and another month to see a surgeon.

In an effort to improve melanoma diagnosis and treatment in the province, Mrs. Shaw and her husband, Allan, recently made a $1-million gift to the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation (DMRF).

“We want our gift to make an immediate difference in the lives of people living in the Maritimes,” says Mrs. Shaw. “Waiting weeks — or even months — for a melanoma diagnosis is stressful and ultimately life-threatening.”

A portion of the Shaws’ gift is designated for innovative diagnostic technology, while the rest will be endowed to fund a nurse, and eventually a postdoctoral fellowship in melanoma research.

“This endowment will keep talented researchers studying this devastating form of skin cancer at Dalhousie Medical School, indefinitely,” says Mrs. Shaw.

Bringing state-of-the-art technology to Halifax

The initial stages of the project will involve the purchase of technology, including the Verisante Aura. Developed in British Columbia, the machine uses a handheld scanner to shine a special light on the skin. The device measures subtle vibrations emitted by molecules in and around a mole or lesion. Cancerous growths produce very different vibrations than healthy tissues, which the Verisante Aura is programmed to automatically detect.

The Shaws’ gift will also buy two other pieces of equipment: the MelaFind and the FotoFinder. The MelaFind is an optical imaging and analysis device that will help dermatologists decide if a skin biopsy should be taken. The FotoFinder is a computerized mole mapping system that photographs the skin, detecting changes over time.

“We are so very pleased to be bringing this new equipment to Halifax, not only because it will save lives and a great deal of stress and worry for people, but also because it will put Dalhousie at the forefront of advancing the early diagnosis of melanoma,” says Mr. Shaw

Enhancing patient care through research

In addition to the equipment itself, the Shaws’ gift will fund a five-year clinical trial of the Verisante Aura, comparing its effectiveness to that of standard methods of examining the skin. Dr. Langley and Dr. Peter Hull, professor and head of the Division of Clinical Dermatology and Cutaneous Science at Dalhousie Medical School, will lead the study.

“We want to know if the Verisante machine is capable of detecting early-stage melanoma as effectively as a human specialist can,” notes Dr. Langley, explaining that, while melanoma is 100 per cent curable if detected and removed before it has spread, survival rates drop sharply when this is not the case.

“If it is, we’ll see major improvements to patient care, because the machine does not require a dermatologist to interpret the results — this can be done by a trained technician. So, people will not face long waits to have suspicious moles examined, and there will be fewer removed for biopsy, freeing pathologists’ time to analyze the most concerning specimens.”

Thanks to the Shaws’ donation, the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness has agreed to house a high-risk melanoma clinic at the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

“We can see already that the Shaws’ gift is transformational,” says Dr. Langley. “We suddenly have a clinic with state-of-the-art equipment and a dedicated team of industry experts. From this kind of base, we can attract more funding and trainees to build a melanoma research program that will make a major impact on the understanding and treatment of this very serious form of skin cancer.”