1998 Discover Technology Awards: Christopher Columbus Foundation Award


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For the third year in a row, the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, an independent federal government agency established to encourage and support new discoveries, has given a $100,000 grant to one of the Discover Awards entrants. The 1998 Columbus Scholar is Marek Elbaum, for his work in developing an imaging system for the early detection of melanoma.

Melanoma killed more than 7,000 Americans last year, in part because the malignant lesions it causes look just like freckles or moles when they first appear. Almost all patients survive this form of skin cancer when it's diagnosed early, but dermatologists fail to catch it by visual inspection one time in three.

"We went to the oncologists and we asked, 'What is difficult for you?'" recalls Elbaum. "And they said, 'If you could help us discriminate early melanoma from benign pigmented lesions, this would be of great help.' And we said with great arrogance, 'Yes, we can do such things.'"

Elbaum and his colleagues at Electro-Optical Sciences in Irvington, New York, then wondered if malignant lesions might look different from benign ones when examined under different frequencies of light. And they found, in fact, that infrared light, which has a longer wavelength than visible light, can penetrate deeper into the skin, revealing the buried portion of a malignant lesion and making it stand out in computer images. So they built a probe that captured infrared and visible-light images. "Instead of providing one color image that the human eye acquires and then the brain analyzes, we are using ten images, each of which is obtained at a different wavelength," explains Elbaum. "What emerges is a completely different pattern from what physicians are accustomed to." A computer then analyzes the pattern to determine if it fits a preprogrammed set of parameters for melanoma.

Elbaum's device can diagnose a malignant growth in less than a minute. Since unveiling it in April 1997, he has tested several hundred patients. Preliminary results suggest that the device is more accurate than a doctor's visual inspection and produces fewer false positives. If so, it could eliminate hundreds of thousands of unnecessary biopsies and maybe even save a few lives. If all goes well, it will be on the market in two years.

The Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, the sponsor of the 1998 Discover Awards ceremony at Epcot in Orlando, Florida, maintains a three-tiered awards program, called Frontiers of Discovery‹Past, Present, and Future. The program, which includes several competitions, is designed to recognize and honor innovative thinking by American citizens of all ages. The $100,000 Christopher Columbus Foundation Award is bestowed on a living American who has made a discovery that has the potential to make a significant and beneficial impact on society and that requires additional funds to be realized. It is presented to an entrant in the Discover Awards for Technological Innovation. The foundation also awards the $25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant to a finalist team in the Bayer/National Science Foundation Award for Community Innovation program, to enable the team to develop its research. In addition, the foundation cosponsors the Christopher Columbus Discovery Institute, which, using the Academy for Creative Exploration curriculum, trains educators and students to develop creative, critical, and analytical skills.

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