healthHealth and Medicine

Handheld Device Can Identify Cancerous Tissue Within 10 Seconds

While the pen is relatively cheap, the expensive bit is the mass spectrometer needed for the analysis

While the pen is relatively cheap, the expensive bit is the mass spectrometer needed for the analysis. Vivian Abagiu/University of Texas

An astonishing new piece of tech has been developed that could allow surgeons operating on a patient to test whether or not a tissue is cancerous in under 10 seconds. The handheld device, known as a MasSpec Pen, could revolutionize cancer surgery, dramatically cutting the risk of leaving tumors inside patients and so reducing the chances that the cancer will return.

The way it works is devilishly simple. When the pen is placed on a sample of tissue, it releases a drop of water. Molecules that are created by the tissue move into this water droplet, which is then sucked back into the pen and prepared for analysis. The pen then needs to be plugged into a mass spectrometer, which scans the droplet and produces a signature of what chemicals are present, from which it can deduce whether or not the tissue sample is cancerous.


This in itself is impressive, demonstrating that technology has advanced so much that this is possible. But what is more incredible is the speed that the MasSpec Pen can do this analysis at, and yet still maintain an amazing degree of accuracy. The researchers report, in Science Translational Medicine, that it can measure the thousands of molecules present in the sample in just 10 seconds, with tests suggesting that it is accurate 96 percent of the time.

Currently, if a tissue sample needs to be tested during an operation, the process can be slow and occasionally inaccurate. The tissue needs to be removed and sent for assessment by a pathologist, which can take up to half an hour while the patient is still under anesthesia. This increases the risk to the patient, from infection and the negative effects of being under for a longer period of time.

It is thought that such rapid diagnosis using the newly developed tech, occurring on the operating table as surgery is taking place, could give surgeons astonishingly precise and swift information as to which pieces of tissue need to be removed, and which should be saved. This, in turn, should have a knock on effect in improving treatment of cancer patients, and their chances of recovery.

“Anytime we can offer the patient a more precise surgery, a quicker surgery or a safer surgery, that’s something we want to do,” explained surgeon James Suliburk, from Baylor College of Medicine, who collaborated on the development of the pen. “This technology does all three. It allows us to be much more precise in what tissue we remove and what we leave behind.”


The pen has so far been trialed on 253 samples, and the researchers plan on continuing these tests in order to refine the pen before trialing it during operations next year.


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