Scientists Have Just Invented a “Pen” That Can Detect Cancer in 10 Seconds

This new tool may look like something out of a Star Trek episode from the '80s, but it's a huge breakthrough for modern medicine.

doctorCourtesy the University of Texas at AustinThere have been many cancer breakthroughs over the years, but a recent innovation could be a complete game changer. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a new handheld tool resembling a pen that can detect cancerous tissue in as little as 10 seconds.

The innovative device, labeled as the MasSpec Pen, will help surgeons identify affected cancer cells nearly instantaneously, which is more than 150 times as fast as existing technology, according to Science Translational Medicine. The most common method for diagnosing cancers during surgery today is via a process called Frozen Section Analysis, in which each sample takes a pathologist 30 minutes or more to complete. It doesn’t just take much longer, but during that time, the risk of infection and negative effects of anesthesia is significantly increased.

cancerCourtesy the University of Texas at AustinEven worse, Frozen Section Analysis is not completely reliable—for some types of cancers, it yields inaccurate results in as many as 10 to 20 percent of cases. The MasSpec pen, by contrast, gives doctors precise diagnostic information about the tissue to cut or preserve, which means it could drastically improve treatment and reduce the probability of cancer recurrence. According to the Medical Express, the MasSpec Pen was more than 96 percent accurate in 253 human cancer patient trials. The technology was also able to detect cancer in marginal regions between normal and cancer tissues that presented mixed cellular composition.

cancerCourtesy the University of Texas at AustinThe new device works by intermingling the fields of chemistry, engineering, and medicine. All living cells, regardless of whether or not they are cancerous, produce small molecules called metabolites. Each kind of cancer will generate a unique set of metabolites that serve as “fingerprints.” The pen gently obtains a molecular fingerprint of the tissue without damaging it; physicians simply hold the pen against the patient’s tissue and trigger the automated analysis using a foot pedal. The pen will then release a drop of water onto the tissue, causing the molecules to migrate into the water.

Once that water sample is gathered, it is instantly compared to a database of various molecular fingerprints. These samples range from normal to cancerous tissues from popular hot spots such as the breast, lung, thyroid, and ovary. Finally, the words “Normal” or “Cancer” will appear on a computer screen (along with the subtype if applicable).

The developers of MasSpec Pen hope it can one day be used in oncologic surgery rooms to fully extract the tumor and all cancer remnants entirely.

Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry at UT Austin who designed the study and led the team, tells Science Translational Medicine, “If you talk to cancer patients after surgery, one of the first things many will say is ‘I hope the surgeon got all the cancer out.’ It’s just heartbreaking when that’s not the case. But our technology could vastly improve the odds that surgeons really do remove every last trace of cancer during surgery.”

Testing for this new technology is slated to begin in 2018.

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Hana Hong
Hana Hong is a journalist/storyteller who writes for Reader's Digest, InStyle, CollegeFashionista, Her Campus, and The Fashion Network, among other publications. She hails from the midwest, where she graduated from the University of Illinois with a BA in News-Editorial Journalism, but has a passion for the East Coast.