Novel Tool Rapidly Detects Cancer During Surgery

A tissue analyzing pen could revolutionize cancer treatment by improving diagnosis.

A team of researchers recently created and validated a tool that may make cancer treatment much easier and quicker. The MasSpec Pen can identify cancerous tissue during surgery within 10 seconds, which is significantly faster than current methods.

This new tool allows surgeons to quickly determine which tissue should be excised and which should remain. This device has the ability to improve treatment and diminish the risk of recurrence, according to a study published by Science Translational Medicine.

"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,'" said lead researcher Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, PhD. "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."

Current technology for diagnosing cancer and normal tissue is called frozen section analysis. This approach can take at least 30 minutes and can be inaccurate in 10% to 20% of cases for certain cancers. Additionally, patients may be more likely to develop an infection or experience the negative effects of anesthesia, according to the study.

In the new study, the MasSpec Pen took approximately 10 seconds to provide a diagnosis for 253 tissue samples with accuracy of more than 96%, according to the study.

The authors also found that the pen was able to detect cancer in the region between normal and cancerous tissues, which has mixed cellular composition, according to the study.

Removing cancerous tissue is crucial for positive patient outcomes, but resecting too much healthy tissue can have negative effects. Breast cancer patients may face nerve damage or need cosmetic surgery if tissue is removed unnecessarily, according to the authors.

The MasSpec Pen provides diagnostic information based on unique metabolites and biomarkers, which are similar to fingerprints.

"Cancer cells have dysregulated metabolism as they're growing out of control," Dr Eberlin said. "Because the metabolites in cancer and normal cells are so different, we extract and analyze them with the MasSpec Pen to obtain a molecular fingerprint of the tissue. What is incredible is that through this simple and gentle chemical process, the MasSpec Pen rapidly provides diagnostic molecular information without causing tissue damage."

Once the pen obtains the molecular fingerprint, it is evaluated by software that classifies the tissue. When completed, the authors report that “normal” or “cancer” is displayed on a computer screen, in addition to subtypes for certain diseases.

The authors validated the MasSpec Pen in human and live mice with tumors.

Another benefit is that the device is easy to use and only requires physicians to hold the pen against the patient’s tissue. The pen then releases a drop of water and analyses the molecules that migrate into the water through a mass spectrometer.

"When designing the MasSpec Pen, we made sure the tissue remains intact by coming into contact only with water and the plastic tip of the MasSpec Pen during the procedure," said lead researcher Jialing Zhang, PhD. "The result is a biocompatible and automated medical device that we are so excited to translate to the clinic very soon."

Notably, the process is low-impact for patients and shows promise to improve outcomes, according to the study.

The authors report that they may begin testing the MasSpec Pen in surgeries in 2018.

"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 researcher James Suliburk, MD. "This technology does all 3. It allows us to be much more precise in what tissue we remove and what we leave behind."