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A 'pen' that can diagnose cancer in 10 seconds

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By Ana De Oliva
A 'pen' that can diagnose cancer in 10 seconds

A group of scientists and engineers from The University of Texas have invented a device that can detect cancer cells in 10 seconds. This is more than 150 times faster than previous methods.

The MasSpec Pen is a handheld pen-like probe that will use molecular fingerprints to distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous cells during surgery.

Tumour extraction surgeries are the foundation of cancer treatment. However, it is not unusual for cancer cells to be found lurking even after the procedure has ended, forcing the patient to go back onto the operation table days later.

As a way of ensuring this doesn’t happen, pathologists need to test the remaining tissue while the patient is still undergoing surgery.

Current methods may take hours before diagnosis and, as the patient lies on the operation table, the wait can increase the risk of infections or unwanted effects from the anesthesia. For certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer, these mid-surgery tests aren’t possible because results take days to come back. Either way, there is currently no immediate way of knowing if all cancer cells have been successfully removed.

However, this new tool may deliver the diagnosis in under a minute, helping surgeons catch residual cancer more efficiently and thus diminishing the risk of the patient having to go back into surgery.

How it works

A drop of water, at the tip of the pen, extracts small molecules from the patient’s tissue during surgery.

The droplet then goes through an instrument called a mass spectrometer, which analyzes the molecules’ composition.

The results, “normal” or “cancer”, appear automatically on a screen so surgeons can instantly identify which tissues to extract or leave.

So far, the device has been tested on laboratory samples from 253 patients and was proved 96% accurate when diagnosing lung, ovarian, thyroid and breast tumors. However, the MasSpec pen still has to undergo further tests.

Researchers now aim to evaluate the new tool during surgical procedures in 2018.