‘Pen’ can iden­tify can­cer in 10 sec­onds, study says

Gad­get should help sur­geons to en­sure can­cer is left be­hind


Ahand­held de­vice can iden­tify can­cer­ous tis­sue in 10 sec­onds, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Texas. They say it could make surgery to re­move a tu­mour quicker, safer and more pre­cise.

And they hope it would avoid the “heart­break” of leav­ing any of the can­cer be­hind.

Tests pub­lished in Sci­ence Trans­la­tional Medicine, sug­gest the tech­nol­ogy is ac­cu­rate 96 per cent of the time.

The Masspec Pen takes ad­van­tage of the unique me­tab­o­lism of can­cer cells. Their fu­ri­ous drive to grow and spread means their in­ter­nal chem­istry is very dif­fer­ent to that of healthy tis­sue.

How it works

The pen is touched on to a sus­pected can­cer and re­leases a tiny droplet of water. Chem­i­cals in­side the liv­ing cells move into the droplet, which is then sucked back up the pen for anal­y­sis.

The pen is plugged into a mass spec­trom­e­ter — piece of kit that can mea­sure the mass of thou­sands of chem­i­cals ev­ery sec­ond. It pro­duces a chem­i­cal fin­ger­print that tells doc­tors whether they are look­ing at healthy tis­sue or can­cer.

The chal­lenge for sur­geons is find­ing the bor­der be­tween the can­cer and nor­mal tis­sue. In some tu­mours it is ob­vi­ous, but in oth­ers the boundary be­tween healthy and diseased tis­sue can be blurred. The pen should help doc­tors en­sure none of the can­cer is left be­hind.

Re­move too lit­tle tis­sue, and any re­main­ing can­cer­ous cells will grow into an­other tu­mour. But take too much, and you can cause dam­age, par­tic­u­larly in or­gans such as the brain.

Livia Eber­lin, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of chem­istry at the Univer­sity of Texas, Austin, told the BBC: “What’s ex­cit­ing about this tech­nol­ogy is how clearly it meets a clin­i­cal need.

“The tool is el­e­gant and sim­ple and can be in the hands of sur­geons in a short time.”

The tech­nol­ogy has been tested on 253 sam­ples as part of the study. The plan is to con­tinue test­ing to re­fine the de­vice be­fore tri­alling it dur­ing op­er­a­tions next year.

The pen cur­rently analy­ses a patch of tis­sue 1.5mm (0.06in) across, but the re­searchers have al­ready de­vel­oped pens that are even more re­fined and should be able to look at a finer patch of tis­sue just 0.6mm across.

While the pen it­self is cheap, the mass spec­trom­e­ter is ex­pen­sive and bulky.

Dr Eber­lin said: “The road­block is the mass spec­trom­e­ter, for sure. We are vi­sion­ing a mass spec­trom­e­ter that is a lit­tle smaller, cheaper and tai­lored for this ap­pli­ca­tion that can be wheeled in and out of rooms.”

Dr James Suliburk, one of the re­searchers and the head of en­docrine surgery at Bay­lor Col­lege of Medicine, said: “Any time we can of­fer the pa­tient a more pre­cise surgery, a quicker surgery or a safer surgery, that’s some­thing we want to do.this tech­nol­ogy does all three.”

The Masspec Pens is the lat­est at­tempt to im­prove the ac­cu­racy of surgery.

A team at Im­pe­rial Col­lege London have de­vel­oped a knife that “smells” the tis­sue it cuts to de­ter­mine whether it is re­mov­ing can­cer. And a team at Har­vard are us­ing lasers to an­a­lyse how much of a brain can­cer to re­move.

“Gath­er­ing this kind of in­for­ma­tion quickly dur­ing surgery could help doc­tors match the best treat­ment op­tions for pa­tients sooner,” Dr Aine Mccarthy, from Can­cer Re­search UK, said.

Re­search says in­ven­tion will help doc­tors to de­ter­mine if a tu­mour is can­cer­ous or not and its char­ac­ter­is­tics.” Dr Aine Mccarthy, from Can­cer Re­search UK

Pic­ture: Courtesy, Univer­sity of Texas, Austin

How the hand­held di­ag­nos­tic “pen” works.

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