Meet your neighbor....Rhett Drugge, a Darien dermatologist
DARIEN — Skin cancer is the most common in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society, and Dr. Rhett Drugge has dedicated much of his work to detecting melanoma, a skin cancer prone to spreading that can be deadly.
“I think for myself and my community, I need to just do it,” the Darien resident said. “It’s simple to do.”
Drugge has run a dermatology practice in Stamford since 1993, but his path to health care was not direct. From 1977 to 1981, Drugge studied intellectual history at Harvard University and spent his summers taking premed courses at Yale University. The Darien native went into politics after finishing his undergraduate work and ghostwrote speeches for state Sen. Lowell Weicker. However, the rumors that come with such high-profile work quickly led Drugge to pursue something else.
“I became disillusioned with politics,” he said.
Drugge went into medical research at Yale, studying drugs used for organ transplant recipients. He enrolled in New York Medical College, where he studied immunology and pharmacology. After doing medical rounds at Stamford Hospital, Drugge decided to go into dermatology, partially influenced by several relatives who died of skin cancer.
“Immunology and cancer are core technical issues in dermatology,” he said. “Rashes and cancer of the skin are extremely difficult issues for doctors to handle.”
To aid him in his work detecting melanoma, in 2000 Drugge invented the Melanoscan system, which scans the whole body to detect moles at risk of developing into skin cancer.
“I realized we were not able to find melanoma early enough with current techniques,” Drugge said. “So I turned my attention to full body photography to find melanoma. ... Visual skin exams are no longer recommended. More than half of melanoma is missed with skin mapping and tracking.”
The Melanoscan can detect a mole’s likelihood of becoming cancerous better than a regular skin check, Drugge said. It picks up on smaller patches of potentially cancerous growths and reduces the number of unnecessary biopsies.
Last year, the Melanoscan detected the world’s smallest patch of melanoma at two millimeters.
According to Drugge, the Melanoscan is able to pick up moles likely to develop into melanoma before they actually become cancerous by detecting their potential for growth.
“I like to use a baseball metaphor,” Drugge said. “Defensive pitching every six months allows us to strike out melanoma.”
Drugge urges patients to be aware of their risk based on the number of moles they have, with people with five or more moles on their arms being at a higher risk for skin cancer.
According to Drugge, skin cancer can take up to 12 years to develop, most often striking women below the age of 30.
“You can easily predict who’s going to get melanoma. The easiest things for parents to do is to count the moles on the arm,” he said. “These latent seeds are so small, they’re unnoticed for years and years until after they’ve gone evasive. It’s about discovering and recognizing who’s at risk.”
Looking forward, Drugge is hoping to help the military use the Melanoscan to detect skin cancer in troops, since many are in the most at-risk age group for the disease. He recently spoke at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., about training dermatologists in what is the most common cancer death in the military age group.
When Drugge isn’t working on his research, he enjoys spending time with his family.
Drugge and his wife, Heather, who is part of the Darien Environmental Group, have three children, all of whom Drugge describes as talented artists. The Drugge family, which has deep roots in Darien, enjoy spending time on the town beaches, particularly during the summer.
“Our lives are really about the kids,” he said.