Significance: Detection and characterization of circulating tumor cells (CTCs), a key determinant of metastasis, are critical for determining risk of disease progression, understanding metastatic pathways, and facilitating early clinical intervention.
Aim: We aim to demonstrate label-free imaging of suspected melanoma CTCs.
Approach: We use a linear-array-based photoacoustic tomography system (LA-PAT) to detect melanoma CTCs, quantify their contrast-to-noise ratios (CNRs), and measure their flow velocities in most of the superficial veins in humans.
Results: With LA-PAT, we successfully imaged suspected melanoma CTCs in patients in vivo, with a CNR >9. CTCs were detected in 3 of 16 patients with stage III or IV melanoma. Among the three CTC-positive patients, two had disease progression; among the 13 CTC-negative patients, 4 showed disease progression.
Conclusions: We suggest that LA-PAT can detect suspected melanoma CTCs in patients in vivo and has potential clinical applications for disease monitoring in melanoma.