Science

This pen-like device can detect cancer in a matter of seconds

It's proven to be more than 96% accurate.

A handheld tool similar to a pen can detect cancer in a matter of seconds and give surgeons a better chance of removing “every last trace” of the disease, a team of scientists said.

Researchers at the University of Texas claim to have invented a device capable of identifying cancerous cells more than 150 times faster than existing technology.

The MasSpec Pen can give surgeons precise information about which tissue to cut or preserve, helping to improve treatment and reduce the chances of cancer reoccurring, they said.

Tests conducted by the team found the tool took just 10 seconds to provide a diagnosis and was more than 96% accurate.

Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry who designed the study, said: “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. But our technology could vastly improve the odds that surgeons really do remove every last trace of cancer during surgery.”

The current method for establishing the boundary between cancer and normal tissues, called frozen section analysis, can be slow and unreliable – and not removing enough of the cancerous tissue can cause tumours to regrow.

But removing too much healthy tissue, in an attempt to ensure as much of the cancer is eliminated as possible, can have detrimental effects, including painful side effects and nerve damage in breast cancer patients and the loss of speech ability for thyroid patients.

a team of surgeons
(Owen Humphreys/PA)

James Suliburk, 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. It allows us to be much more precise in what tissue we remove and what we leave behind.”

The pen works by releasing a tiny droplet of water onto the tissue, which soaks up chemicals inside the cells. It is then sucked back up and analysed by an instrument known as a mass spectrometer, which can detect thousands of molecules, before doctors are given the results on a computer screen.

The team hopes to start testing the new device during oncology surgeries next year.

The study has been published in the Science Translational Medicine journal.

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