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'Cancer pen' could help surgeons spot tumor cells in seconds

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Staff Writer |
Cancer pen
Science   It can be really tricky

A new "cancer pen" promises to help surgeons immediately detect and completely remove cancerous tumor tissue, without having to send samples off to a lab for testing while the patient languishes on the table.

The MasSpec Pen is a hand-held device that allows doctors to test in real-time whether tissue is cancerous or not, delivering results in about 10 seconds, researchers report.

The pen will make it easier to surgically clear out all the cancer cells surrounding a tumor, explained senior researcher Livia Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry with the University of Texas at Austin.

In particular, cancers such as those of the breast, pancreas and brain "tend to invade surrounding normal tissue," Eberlin said. "For a surgeon, it can be really tricky, because these cells resemble normal tissue. Just judging by [the] eye, it can be very challenging."

The pen's accuracy currently stands at more than 96 percent, based on tests that used tissues removed from 253 cancer patients.

The new device also could shorten cancer surgeries, said co-researcher John Lin, an undergraduate research assistant in Eberlin's lab.

Cancer surgeons these days send tissue samples off to an in-hospital pathology lab during the operation to see if they have removed all the tumor, Lin said.

But the process can take as long as a half hour, during which time the patient remains on the table and under anesthesia. By comparison, the MasSpec Pen delivers results within a handful of heartbeats.

The device's potential accuracy is as valuable as its easy use, said Dr. Gary Deutsch, a surgical oncologist with Northwell Health Cancer Institute in Lake Success, N.Y.

The single-use pen connects by a thin tube to a mass spectrometer, a scientific device that analyzes the chemical and mass composition of molecules.

Surgeons hold the tip of the pen against the patient's tissue, where it quickly releases and then recaptures a tiny drop of water.

The droplet is transported into the mass spectrometer through the thin tube, where it is analyzed to determine whether the molecules it contains appear normal or cancerous.

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