Finding “ugly ducklings” may help detect melanoma

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In Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale, the ugly duckling stands out from the flock because he's destined to become a swan. In dermatology, the "ugly duckling" is a mole that doesn't look like the rest of the moles on a person's body, and is often suspected to be a melanoma.

A team of French researchers decided to test whether finding an ugly duckling among all of a patient's moles is as effective a way of identifying melanoma as applying diagnostic criteria — like size, shape, color, and irregularity — to each mole separately. For the study, nine dermatologists studied images of 2,089 individual moles from 80 people. The images were presented to the dermatologists two different ways on two different days. On one day, they evaluated each image separately; on another, they looked for the ugly ducklings among the complete set of moles from each patient. They were able to flag the melanomas accurately both times. However, they were able to decrease the number of moles biopsied when they used the ugly duckling system.

The study, published online Feb. 8, 2017, by JAMA Dermatology, suggests that you might want to look for ugly ducklings when you do a skin check. If a suspicious mole sends you to a dermatologist, it's a good idea to have him or her look at all your other moles as well.