“[With MasSpec Pen] we’re able to test tissue without taking tissue out,” James Suliburk, a professor of surgery at Baylor who helped develop the device, said to Smithsonian.com. “Right now, anything we want to test, we have to cut out. And we don’t want to cut out normal tissue. This allows us to be much more precise.”
The current practice, called frozen section analysis, involves cutting out tissue and sending it to the lab where a pathologist examines it under a microscope to determine if it’s cancerous. The whole process can take more than 30 minutes during which the patient remains sedated on the operating table. And although it’s usually accurate, in some cases this technique has been known to be inconclusive or produce false negative results.
So far, the MasSpec Pen has been tested on tissue removed from 253 cancer patients and has a 96 per cent accuracy rate in detecting cancer, including in subtle changes between normal and cancerous tissue. Human trials will begin next year, and the researchers have applied for patents for the technology.
“We’re changing up something that has been done the same way in surgery for half a century,” Suliburk said. “I think probably Harvey Cushing’s invention of the electrocautery almost 100 years ago is the last thing that was as revolutionary as this could be.”
LISTEN: Researcher Livia Eberlin talks about MasSpec Pen on AM640