New ‘cancer pen’ can detect the tumors in just 10 seconds

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have developed a new pen-like device that could allow doctors to more quickly and accurately identify and remove tumors during surgery, allowing them to distinguish between cancerous and healthy cells in as little as 10 seconds.

Described in a study published in a recent edition of the journal Science Translational Medicine, the instrument is a diagnostic tool called the MasSpec Pen. It uses tiny water droplets to analyze human tissue samples for cancer and is 96% accurate, the inventors explained in a statement.

“If you talk to cancer patients after surgery, one of the first things many will say is ‘I hope the surgeon got all the cancer out.’ It’s just heartbreaking when that’s not the case.” lead researcher and assistant chemistry professor Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, said. “Our technology could vastly improve the odds that surgeons really do remove every last trace of cancer during surgery.”

According to NBC News reports the pen-shaped device works in real time and is as accurate as taking a tissue sample and sending it to a pathologist. It is also less invasive, since it requires no tissue to be cut, and proved able to detect tumors in marginal regions between normal tissue and cancerous tissue – mixed composition cells that otherwise might have been overlooked.

Improving tumor detection while requiring less healthy tissue removal

The MasSpec Pen has a disposable nozzle, New Scientist explained, and when placed on tissues believed to be cancerous, it absorbs biological material such as fat and protein that is analyzed by a mass spectrometer. The spectrometer searches for compounds that make lung, breast and other types of cancer cells different from healthy ones using algorithms to search a database.

“Cancer cells have dysregulated metabolism as they’re growing out of control,” explained Eberlin. “Because the metabolites in cancer and normal cells are so different, we extract and analyze them with the MasSpec Pen to obtain a molecular fingerprint of the tissue. What is incredible is that through this simple and gentle chemical process, the MasSpec Pen rapidly provides diagnostic molecular information without causing tissue damage.”

The instrument can deliver a response in as little as 10 seconds, and in tests involving 253 human tissue samples, it proved to be 96% accurate. It was also successfully tested on live mice growing human breast tumors, according to NBC News, and the researcher team said that they plan to test the device during oncologic procedures beginning sometime next year.

“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,” said James Suliburk, head of endocrine surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine as well as a member of the research team. “This technology does all three. It allows us to be much more precise in what tissue we remove and what we leave behind.”

“The speed and accuracy of our device could really help on treatment options and decisions,” Eberlin told New Scientist, adding that approximately one-tenth of all cancer relapses are due to the re-growth of tissues missed during surgery. At the same time, she and her colleagues pointed out that the pen could help improve patient survival by reducing how much healthy tissue winds up being removed in an attempt to eliminate tumors.


Image credit: Vivian Abagiu/Univ. of Texas at Austin