When surgeons have a cancer patient on the table, their number-one goal is to get rid of as much of the infected tissue as possible. Problem is, it's not always easy to tell the difference between what's cancerous and what's not. Now, with a new piece of technology (that looks a lot like a pen), doctors will be able to detect cancer in just 10 seconds. To put that into perspective, that's more than 150 times faster than any technology that exists today. (Related: The Zika Virus May Be Used to Treat Aggressive Forms of Brain Cancer)
Dubbed the MasSpec Pen, the innovative diagnostic tool was created by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. The device, which isn't FDA-approved yet, works by using small drops of water to analyze human tissue for cancer, according to a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
"Anytime we can offer the patient a more precise surgery, a quicker surgery, or a safer surgery, that's something we want to do," James Suliburk, M.D., head of endocrine surgery at Baylor College of Medicine and a collaborator on the project, told UT News. "This technology does all three. It allows us to be much more precise in what tissue we remove and what we leave behind."
The study itself involved 263 human tissue samples from lung, ovary, thyroid, and breast cancer tumors. Each sample was compared to healthy tissue. Researchers found that the MasSpec Pen was able to identify the cancer 96 percent of the time. (Related: The Story Behind a New Bra Designed to Detect Breast Cancer)
While these findings still need tons of validating, researchers plan to start human trials sometime next year, and they're hopeful about potentially being able to detect a greater range of cancers. That said, since the MasSpec Pen is a surgical instrument, working on exposed tissue, it's unlikely that it'll be used during routine checkups.
"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,'" Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, Ph.D., the designer of the study, told UT News. "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."