Powerful Pen Can Detect Cancer in Seconds

Health Writer
Wyatt McSpadden/University of Texas at Austin

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have invented a powerful pen that can identify cancerous tissue during surgery, delivering results in about 10 seconds. According to the university’s news release on the device, the MasSpec Pen is an innovative handheld instrument that can tell surgeons 150 times faster than previously which tissue to cut or preserve. MasSpec is short for mass spectrometry system. The university offers a video to show how it works.

Frozen section analysis, a technique pioneered at the Mayo Clinic more than 100 years ago, is currently used for diagnosing cancers and determining the boundary between cancer and normal tissue during surgery. But this technique can take 30 minutes or more to determine an answer, compared to the average of 10 seconds with the MasSpec Pen.

In tests on tissues removed from 253 human cancer patients, the MasSpec Pen was more than 96 percent accurate.

How it works

To operate, the physician holds the pen against the patient’s tissue. Through a simple chemical process, the MasSpec Pen can read the molecular information without causing tissue damage. Living cells, whether they are healthy or cancerous, produce small molecules called metabolites. Each type of cancer produces a unique set of metabolites and other biomarkers that act as fingerprints.

In an article published in the journal of Molecular & Cellular Proteomics in 2004, “serum proteomic profiling, by using surfaced-enhanced laser desorption/ionization-time-of-flight mass spectrometry, is one of the most promising new approaches for cancer diagnostics.”

Furthermore, “exceptional sensitivities and specificities have been reported for some cancer types such as prostate, ovarian, breast, and bladder cancers.”

According to IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology, this is not the first time engineers have proposed a tool that can identify cancer in real-time during surgery. But all of them damage the tissue in some way because they use gas, solvents, voltages, or heat. The MasSpec pen causes no damage to the tissue.

What the team’s lead says about device

In an email interview with HealthCentral, Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, who conceived the idea and led the research team, said, “we hope to further develop the technology so that it will be applicable to most types of solid cancers.”

According to Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, the project is in the research and development phase, and the team still needs to validate the results and conduct further tests during human surgeries. The cost of the technology also needs to be worked out.

“The pen itself is disposable and should be cheap, but equipment that it is attached to for the high-performance measurements is quite costly,” Eberlin says.

This technology requires a mass spectrometer in the operating room. They are expensive, running about a half a million dollars, and are not typically found in the operating room. Eberlin’s research team expects to begin a pilot study testing this new technology during oncologic surgeries in 2018. They have filed U.S. patent applications and are now working to secure worldwide patents.

Eberlin says she is grateful to the University of Texas at Austin and believes “this research could not have been accomplished without an interdisciplinary team of scientists including chemists, engineers, surgeons, pathologists, statisticians, and computational scientists.”

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