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Cancer Pen May Speed Diagnosis

Highly accurate new tool helps surgeons test suspicious tissue

Cancer Pen

Courtesy of the University of Texas

Doctors have had to biopsy a suspicious tumor or tissue during surgery and wait for analysis. The MasSpec Pen could change testing.

A revolutionary pen-like medical device that can detect cancerous tissue during surgery, improve the accuracy of diagnosis and reduce the time spent under anesthesia sounds like a dream. It soon may become a reality.

The MasSpec Pen — which was developed by a team of scientists and engineers at the University of Texas at Austin, Baylor College of Medicine and University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center — could change the way doctors test for cancer.

Surgeons have had to biopsy a suspicious tumor or tissue and then analyze it under a microscope — a process that can take more than an hour — while the patient is still on the operating table. This new tool uses mass spectrometry and a disposable plastic probe to touch the tissue and provide a rapid diagnostic readout — “normal” or “cancerous” — within 10 seconds. In an initial academic study of 253 samples taken by the UT team from patients with breast, thyroid, lung and ovarian cancers, the results have been 96 percent accurate.

The device may help reduce health care costs, but there is also one nontangible benefit: peace of mind. “When you wake up from anesthesia after surgery, how do you know you got it all?” Noah Giese, a research engineer and a co-author on the study, told AARP. “It is so difficult to see down to the molecular level, and that is why we use mass spectrometry to increase that confidence. We can say, ‘Yes, we did get it all’ because we checked on every single [tissue] margin with this highly accurate, quick and powerful piece of technology coupled with the MasSpec Pen to certify that the doctor did remove everything and you are cancer free.”

The UT team expects the MasSpec Pen to undergo clinical trials in 2018.