Forget biopsies — this smart pen identifies cancerous tissue in 10 seconds

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have developed a device called the MasSpec Pen, which is capable of detecting cancer in seconds — thereby helping surgeons to remove tumors in their entirety during operations. The smart pen is reportedly 150 times faster than established conventional technologies at detecting cancer and is 96 percent accurate.

“The user first touches the pen on the tissue and triggers the process using a foot pedal,” Dr. Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “The device was engineered in a way that it provides a tiny droplet of water to the pen tip, which interacts with the tissue, extracting biomolecules. Next, this droplet containing the biomolecule is transported to a mass spectrometer through a tube. The mass spectrometer is a very powerful analytical technology that measures and identifies molecules and generates a molecular profile, or a molecular ‘fingerprint.’ This fingerprint is evaluated by a statistical classifier that provides a predictive diagnosis with an associated probability. This whole process takes a total of 10 seconds and is non-destructive to the tissue.”

The technology has so far been tested on both human tissue samples and also in animal surgeries. Extrapolated to humans, the hope is that the tech will aid surgeons by showing them how much tissue they need to cut during procedures. It could also lower the number of repeat surgeries cancer patients has to undergo, on occasions when it turns out that surgeons have not removed all traces of the disease.

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University of Texas at Austin
University of Texas at Austin

At present, samples that are taken during operations have to be sent for analysis — which takes a whole lot longer than 10 seconds, even when fast-tracked. This can be further complicated by the fact that pathologists may be examining frozen samples, which may make it more difficult to give a clear answer.

“We are now validating the technology by increasing our sample sets and expanding to other cancer types,” Eberlin continued. “Then we are planning to start pilot clinical test in surgeries early next year with our clinical collaborators. We are [also] exploring commercialization opportunities.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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