September 22, 2017 10:27 am
Updated: September 22, 2017 4:03 pm

Researchers have developed a pen that detects cancer in seconds

WATCH: The MasSpec Pen is able to detect cancerous tissue in seconds in the operating room, allowing doctors to determine immediately if it needs to be removed.


Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and the Baylor College of Medicine have developed a pen that can test cancer tissue on the spot in the operating room, allowing doctors to know immediately if the tissue needs to be removed.

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Called the MasSpec Pen, the pen-like handheld device releases a droplet of water on the tissue’s surface, attracts biomolecules from the tissue and sucks it back up to test it. It then runs a quick molecular analysis to determine if the tissue is cancerous, and displays either the words “cancer” or “normal” on the corresponding computer. In some cases, it can also tell doctors the specific subtype of the disease.

“[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 “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.

READ MORE: There’s ‘strong evidence’ obesity is tied to 11 types of cancer, study warns

“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

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