The University of Maryland Medical System opened today the state's first clinic for detecting and treating patients with cancerous moles and identifying other persons who may be susceptible to the often fatal disease.

The Pigmented Lesion Clinic is designed to help specialists spot malignant moles at their earliest development so they can be removed surgically to prevent spreading.

"If detected early enough, 85 percent of the people with malignant melanoma can be saved," Joseph W. Burnett, University Hospital chief dermatologist and director of the new clinic, said at a press conference.

About 17,500 persons develop melanoma each year in the United States, he said, and one-third of them die within a year. Doctors noted, however, that most moles are not malignant.

Other melanoma clinics are in Philadelphia, New York, Boston and San Francisco.

Although hospital officials said that the number of cases of melanoma is relatively small compared to other forms of cancer, Burnett added that the incidence of melanoma has doubled in the last 10 to 20 years, with the most dramatic increases in industrialized areas.

The high death rate, he said, indicates that many people ignore the early signs of possible malignancy -- itching, change of shape and color and proliferation of moles -- until it is too late.

Malignant melanoma chiefly affects light-skinned persons with blond or red hair, especially those exposed to intense periods of sunshine. It occurs 10 times more frequently often among whites than blacks.