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BACKGROUND: The stages of melanocytic progression are defined as atypical (dysplastic) nevus, melanoma in situ, melanoma in the radial growth phase (RGP), melanoma in the vertical growth phase (VGP), and melanoma in the metastatic growth phase (MGP). Melanoma in situ and RGP melanoma often develop in contiguous association with atypical nevi. This frequently poses a problem with respect to their early detection. Furthermore, unlike cells obtained from VGP and MGP melanomas, cells derived from melanoma in situ and RGP melanoma do not proliferate in vitro. Thus, compared to the late stages of the disease, less information is available regarding genes expressed in the early stages. MATERIALS AND METHODS: To determine whether spectral imaging, a recently developed optical imaging technique, can detect melanoma in situ and RGP melanoma arising in melanoma precursor lesions, atypical nevi in patients with a clinical history of melanoma were subjected to noninvasive macroscopic spectral imaging. To determine at what stage in the progression pathway of melanoma genes having important biological functions in VGP and MGP melanomas are activated and expressed, lesions of melanoma in situ were analyzed by immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization for expression of some of these known molecular and immunologic markers. RESULTS: The present study demonstrates the capability of noninvasive spectral imaging to detect melanoma in situ and RGP melanoma that arise in contiguous association with atypical nevi. Furthermore, the study provides evidence that genes and antigens expressed in VGP and MGP melanoma are also expressed in melanoma in situ. CONCLUSIONS: Because of the dark and variegated pigmentation of atypical nevi, melanoma in situ and RGP melanoma that arise in these melanoma precursor lesions are often difficult to recognize and thus frequently go unnoticed. The application of new optical screening techniques for early detection of melanoma and the identification of genes expressed in the early stages of melanoma development are two important avenues in the pursuit of melanoma prevention. The investigations presented here document that macroscopic spectral imaging has the potential to detect melanoma in its early stage of development and that genes essential for the proliferation and cell adhesion of VGP and MGP melanoma are already expressed in melanoma in situ.