This pen diagnoses cancer mid-surgery in seconds

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This pen diagnoses cancer mid-surgery in seconds

Tatiana A. Dias
September 12th, 2017

The scientific standard for determining if a tissue sample is cancerous is called mass spectrometry, and it isn’t simple. First, large machines in distant labs run samples through a series of complicated processes. Then, they release information that requires specialised training to interpret. Results can, therefore, take a long time to be returned.


The MasSpec Pen: what is it?

This is a real-time pen that analyses tissue samples, mid-surgery, with 96% accuracy. This means doctors can use the pen to ensure they cut out a whole tumour before the patient is closed up, preventing relapses caused by missed tissue. As the name suggests, it uses mass spectrometry to make diagnoses.


So far, the researchers have tested 253 human tissue samples from lung, ovary, thyroid and breast cancer tumours, and compared them to samples of healthy tissues. The device can also identify different subtypes of lung and thyroid cancer, and the team believe in the pen’s abilities to cover all solid cancers eventually.



The MasSpec Pen: how does it work?

Human cancer cells create a unique set of molecules that can be used for pattern identification. A pump system of the MasSpec Pen sends a single drop of water to the pen tip, which sits on the tissue for three seconds little drop of water. This extracts water-soluble molecules, like small metabolites including sugars, lipids, amino acids, and proteins from a person’s cells during surgery.


Then the droplet passes from the pen down a 1.5-metre tube attached to a mass spectrometer that analyses the molecules to get a “fingerprint” of the tissue. These samples can then be transferred to a mass spectrometer, which compares the combination of biomolecules with a database of similar data. Algorithms can produce a conclusion on whether the tissue is likely to be from cancer or a normal ‘fingerprint’ within 10 seconds.


Advantages of the MasSpec Pen

This is an exceptionally mild chemical process. It does not cause any obvious harm to the healthy tissue around the tumour site. The pen has a 3D-printed surgical-ready plastic tip. Furthermore, it utilises water instead of the high-voltage, pressurised gasses and toxic solvents employed in standard mass spectrometry. Finally, the pen is disposable, so surgeons would replace it with each surgery.


Preventing relapses

The speed and accuracy of the device could truly aid on treatment alternatives and choices. Around 10% of relapses result from the re-growth of tissue missed during surgery. After validation of this data in clinical trials, the pen-size mass spectrometry might improve diagnosis during operations, helping to identify micro-metastatic cancer deposits. This could lead to more precise operations to extract various types of tumours.



While the pen-sized device that the surgeon would use is small, this is only because of the inlet mechanism. The spectrometer that the pen feeds, which helps the process of analysing individual molecules, is still just as big as the legacy models. That large machine would need to be wheeled throughout surgery rooms for each procedure. This can take up a lot of room in the operating area.


What is next?

This is a good example of a tool that empowers the transition to precision medicine where treatment should be possible with much higher levels of confidence. The MasSpec Pen may one day provide a change from all that waiting, worrying, and wondering. Nevertheless, even if it only provides the tiniest bit of relief to one patient, that will still be a great advance!


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“ This is an exceptionally mild chemical process. It does not cause any obvious harm to the healthy tissue around the tumour site. ”

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