‘A better way to diagnose melanoma’: La Jolla’s DermTech develops Smart Sticker for the skin

DermTech says its Smart Sticker can help detect melanoma in skin cells lifted via its adhesive.
(Courtesy of DermTech)

Aiming to help people bypass a biopsy, La Jolla company DermTech has developed a skin patch to test for melanoma using genomics, or the study of a person’s genes.

DermTech, led by Chief Executive Dr. John Dobak, who has helped grow the company from four employees to nearly 300 in nine years, is “all about bringing the precision of genomics to dermatology,” he said.

Dobak, a longtime La Jolla resident who graduated from UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, said genomics “is one of the biggest revolutions in medicine ever, and it’s fundamentally changing the way medicine is practiced.”

DermTech’s Smart Sticker is a round patch covered in a proprietary adhesive that is applied over a suspicious mole and removed, painlessly taking with it the “tiny upper layers” of skin.

Dr. John Dobak of La Jolla heads up DermTech on North Torrey Pines Road.
(Courtesy of DermTech)

The genomic material in the removed skill cells is then extracted from the patch and purified and analyzed to see if “that lesion is a higher risk for melanoma,” Dobak said.

“Cancer is caused by changes in the genome,” he said. “We measure those changes. [The Smart Sticker is] a very accurate and objective way to assess a mole for melanoma.”

“Dermatology is historically a very subjective specialty,” involving doctors assessing skin with their naked eyes to determine whether a spot might be cancerous, Dobak said. A suspicious mole or spot is then cut out of the skin and examined under a microscope for cancerous cells.

Dobak said it’s difficult to diagnose early-stage melanoma that way, with only about a 50 percent success rate and disagreement among different doctors’ analyses.

“It leads to a lot of unnecessary cutting and surgeries,” he said.

By using a noninvasive platform like the Smart Sticker, “we can flip that paradigm on its head and make it objective, less invasive, more accurate and lower cost,” Dobak said.

Melanoma is “the most curable cancer out there,” he said, with a 99 percent survival rate if detected early.

The DermTech melanoma test results are negative 85 percent to 90 percent of the time, “as they should be,” Dobak said, eliminating the need for further biopsies and leading to a five- to 10-fold reduction in the number of such procedures.

Results from the patch are usually turned around in three to five days.

The Smart Sticker currently is administered either in a dermatologist’s office with a prescription or via a telemedicine option through DermTech’s app, DermTech Connect, where a patient uploads a picture of a mole and doctors determine whether a patch is needed.

The Smart Sticker can then be sent to the patient’s home, applied with guidance from a licensed professional and mailed to DermTech for analysis.

The cost of the patch is reimbursed by Medicare at $760, Dobak said, compared with an average $1,200 cost of a mole biopsy.

“We still have a lot of work to do to get [more] insurance payers behind it,” Dobak said. He added that people should “demand this test because this is a better way to diagnose melanoma.”

Dobak said more than 100,000 Smart Sticker tests have been done in the past four years — close to half of them last year.

“We’re looking to do almost double [the 2021 number] this year,” he added.

DermTech also is working to develop noninvasive detections of other skin diseases.

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