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Can A Simple Pen Help Doctors Diagnose Cancer?

It’s the first device of its kind to analyze tissue without damaging it.

When cancer patients enter surgery, doctors often do not have a complete picture of where and how far tumors have spread. As a result, cancerous cells can be left behind despite surgeons’ best efforts to remove as much as they can. This leads to more surgeries, longer recovery times, and ultimately higher risks for cancer patients.

Luckily, a few chemists from the University of Texas at Austin have designed a new tool to disrupt this process. Roughly the size and shape of a ballpoint pen, the MasSpec Pen? detects cancer almost instantly and can be used during surgery to identify tumorous areas quickly, effectively reducing the risk of cancer recurrence. According to UT News, the MasSpec Pen delivers test results 150 times faster than existing methods with an accuracy of 96%.

The device works like this: Mid-surgery, doctors touch the questionable tissue with the plastic tip of the pen. The pen places a drop of water on the tissue for a few seconds, allowing it to draw observable molecules from the area. A tube then carries that droplet to a mass spectrometer, which studies the molecules for abnormalities. The whole process takes about 10 seconds from start to finish, allowing doctors to act quickly when cancer is detected and save healthy tissue when the pen fails to detect anything abnormal.

For the pen to work so efficiently, assistant professor Livia Schiavinato Eberlin told Wired that her team looked at more than 250 tissue samples — some cancerous and some normal — to train the pen to identify various types of cancers. While similar tools have been used in the past (namely a knife that burns tissue and analyzes the smoke), this is the first device of its kind to detect cancer without harming any tissue. The team is set to begin using the device in operating rooms starting in 2018.

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