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Biocompatible Pen to Detect Cancer During Surgery

Biocompatible Pen to Detect Cancer During Surgery

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  • A pen-like device that can differentiate between normal and cancerous tissue based on the principle of mass spectrometry has been developed.
  • It detected cancers with a 96% accuracy when tested on tissue samples.
  • Further testing and approval of the device is necessary before it can be routinely used.

A handheld device based on mass spectrometry that can differentiate between cancerous and non-cancerous tissues within seconds and can be used by surgeons during surgery has been showcased at the South by Southwest's (SXSW) interactive festival. A scientific paper on the device was earlier published in the Science Translational Medicine.

When surgeons operate a person with a cancer, they are often faced with the problem as to how much tissue should be removed, since on naked eye, the demarcation is usually not clear. Removal of too much tissue makes more tissue unavailable to the patient for normal body functions, while leaving back even some cancerous tissue can result in recurrence of the cancer. Currently, at times of doubt, frozen sections of the tissue are made in the operating theatre and are quickly analyzed by the pathologist, which give the surgeon an idea of how much tissue should be surgically removed. This approach does take a few minutes and prolongs the duration of the surgery.


The new device works on a different principle. It is a simple pen-like hand-held instrument that is attached to a mass spectrometry analyzer and monitor. When the pen comes in contact with the tissue and is triggered with the help of a pedal, a drop of water in the pen extracts molecules from the tissue, which then go into the analyzer and the results appear on the monitor within seconds. Some of the potential advantages of using the device are as follows:
  • The device allows a quick evaluation of the tissue and speeds up the surgery.
  • It eliminates the need for an access to a pathologist during the surgery to assess a frozen section.
  • When the pen was tested in mice during surgery, it could accurately differentiate between cancerous and non-cancerous tissue.
  • The pen is biocompatible, that is, it does not damage the tissue that is comes in contact with, and can therefore be possibly used directly on the human tissue while carrying out the surgery, without the need to cut it out first. This is in contrast with several other similar recent innovations, which damage the tissues on contact.
  • According to a study done by the researchers, the device was 96% accurate in detecting breast, ovarian, thyroid, and lung in 300 slides of tissue samples obtained from cancerous and normal tissues.
The device is yet to be tested on a human during a live surgery. Also, it has not yet been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Thus, it could take some time before it is available for use. If approved and proved to be efficient in correctly detecting cancers, it could be another merger of medicine and technology to improve the delivery of healthcare to patients.

Reference :
  1. Zhang J et al. "Nondestructive tissue analysis for ex vivo and in vivo cancer diagnosis using a handheld mass spectrometry system." Science Translational Medicine (2017): Vol. 9, Issue 406, eaan3968. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aan3968
Source: Medindia

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