Engineering Minute

Engineering Minute – Cancer Detecting Pen

A group of researchers recently presented their findings to the American Chemical Society regarding developing a cancer detecting pen for use in surgery. The "MasSpec Pen" is a handheld medical device that allows surgeons to distinguish between healthy and cancerous tissues. The pen is meant to be used during surgery when removing a tumor. It is able to accurately detect where the edges of the tumor lie allowing for more complete excision of cancerous tissue. 


cancer detecting pen
The MasSpec Pen could someday help cancer surgeons determine the edges of tumors in the operating room; researchers used it to analyze thyroid tissue ex vivo and are now testing it in vivo with human patients. Credit: American Chemical Society

“It’s been shown with extensive clinical data that highly effective surgeries are those that remove the most cancer, but also preserve the most normal tissue,” says Livia Eberlin, Ph.D, principal investigator of the study “We created the MasSpec Pen because we thought it would be incredible if there was a technology that could actually provide molecular information right in the operating room in living tissues within a time frame that could expedite surgical decisions.”


From the American Chemical Society article: "Surprisingly, the most common method that medical professionals currently use to determine tumor margins or verify a diagnosis is 100 years old: histopathology. With this technique, a tissue sample is extracted during surgery and taken to a laboratory. The sample is flash-frozen, sectioned, stained and examined with a microscope. In total, this procedure can take an average of 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the patient, who is still under anesthesia, and the surgeon are left waiting. In addition, while histopathology is effective for many surgeries, especially for cancers, the process can be subjective because artifacts from the freezing process can complicate interpretation, Eberlin explains.

To overcome these challenges, Eberlin and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin developed the MasSpec Pen, a handheld and biocompatible device connected to a high-performance mass spectrometer. The device rapidly identifies the molecular profile of tissue exposed during a surgery by first depositing a small droplet of water on the tissue surface for about three seconds. Next, the droplet is transferred to the mass spectrometer, where molecules from the tissue are identified. Finally, machine learning algorithms comb through the molecular information and provide a predictive diagnosis that surgeons can act on."


Read more about the cancer detecting pen at the American Chemical Society.


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