An experimental pen-like probe can make surgery to remove tumor quicker, safer, and more precise. The handheld device can identify cancerous tissues in just a matter of 10 seconds.

The MasSpec Pen uses molecular fingerprints to distinguish cancerous cells from the healthy ones faster compared with the technology currently used today. Researchers said that with the device providing real-time molecular information, surgeons can improve their accuracy during cancer surgery.

Laboratory tests, results of which were published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, revealed that that the probe is accurate 96 percent of the time.

How MasSpec Pen Works

The MasSpec Pen uses the unique metabolism of cancer cells, whose internal chemistry is distinct from that of the healthy ones. It detects compounds present in breast, ovary, thyroid, and lung tumors that make these different from healthy tissues.

The device does not require any cutting of the tissues. It only needs a little drop of water. Once chemicals inside the living cells get into the water droplets, they are sucked up by the pen for analysis.

The pen is plugged into a mass spectrometer, which can measure the mass of thousands of chemicals per second. The device then generates chemical fingerprints that allow doctors to tell if they are looking at a healthy tissue or not.

"The pen could be used to rapidly distinguish tumor from healthy tissue during surgery in mice, without requiring specific labeling or imaging and without evidence of tissue destruction," the researchers wrote in their study.

It May Pave Way For Less Invasive, More Precise Tumor Surgery

Researchers working on the device said that they hope it can help make for less invasive surgery that removes all the tumor and leaves behind as much healthy tissue as possible.

Finding the border between cancerous and normal tissues poses a challenge to surgeons.

While some tumors are obvious, there are tissues with characteristics that blur between healthy and diseased.

Removing too little cancerous tissues may cause other remaining cancerous cells to grow into another tumor. Taking too much, on the other hand, can cause damage in organs such as the brain. The pen may help doctors ensure that none of the cancer is left.

"Any time we can offer the patient a more precise surgery, a quicker surgery or a safer surgery, that's something we want to do," said James Suliburk, from Baylor College of Medicine who is part the project. "This technology does all three. It allows us to be much more precise in what tissue we remove and what we leave behind."

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