Surgery : a pen detects cancer cells in 10 seconds

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That worry could be over with a new pencil-sized tool developed by scientists and engineers at the University of Texas at Austin, according to a study published yesterday.

When surgeons have a cancer patient on the table, their number-one goal is to get rid of as much of the infected tissue as possible. It's called the MasSpec Pen. The authors say investigating larger sample sets may make the MasSpec Pen even more accurate, and allow it to diagnose a wider range of tumors from different types of tissues.

Currently, surgeons can use a technique called frozen section analysis during operations to determine the boundary between tumour and healthy cells. They also successfully used the pen during a handful of operations on mice.

"O$3 ur technology could vastly improve the odds that surgeons really do remove every last trace of cancer during surgery", said Eberlin, in a statement.

The study itself involved 263 human tissue samples from lung, ovary, thyroid, and breast cancer tumors. This, in turn, should have a knock on effect in improving treatment of cancer patients, and their chances of recovery. Researchers place the pen-like device directly onto tissue, press a foot pedal to switch it on, and a tiny amount of water emerges to gently pull molecules from the cells in that spot.

The MasSpec Pen works by analysing metabolites and other biomarkers that each type of cancer produces.

Samples tested during surgery can take over half an hour to prepare, meaning patients are under aesthetic for long periods of time or wait weeks for results. Unlike with the iKnife or laser devices, surgeons can safely test marginal tissue without potentially harming healthy cells. The liquid is drawn back into the probe and pumped to a mass spectrometer, which analyses the dissolved molecules, compares the results to a statistical database of molecular fingerprints and sends a message to a monitor screen displaying the words "normal" or "cancer".

The researchers said the tool was accurate over 96% of the time.

The droplet is then pumped through tubing to the mass spectrometer, which provides information on each of the molecules present in the sample-information such as the molecules' mass-to-charge ratios, which is the quantitative relation between a molecule's mass and electrical charge, and is unique for each molecule.

The team hopes to begin clinical trials on humans in 2018.

The team hopes to start testing the new device during oncology surgeries next year.

Another member of the research team said that any time a patient can be offered more precise, safer and quicker surgery, it is something we as researchers want to do. "This technology does all three".

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