SXSW: Scientists tout ‘pen’ technology that detects cancer in 20 seconds

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Imagine if you could detect cancer within seconds. A group of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin say they’ve developed the technology to do just that. The MasSpec Pen, which is being showcased at SXSW this week, can identify cancerous tissue during surgery in real time.

“The MasSpec Pen is a handheld device coupled to a mass spectrometer that can diagnose cancer during surgery in twenty seconds,” said Marta Sans, graduate research assistant for the Livia Eberlin Research Group.

The pen uses touch to make a diagnosis. It’s placed over tissue. A foot pedal triggers the device, and the pen releases water droplets, which extract molecules from the tissue. The water is drawn into the mass spectrometer, which then analyzes the molecular composition.

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“Then, we can create a molecular fingerprint that can say if this is cancer or if it’s not based on the molecules of the pen,” said Sans.

For doctors, the technology is groundbreaking. Determining cancerous tissue from normal tissue during surgery is sometimes difficult and waiting for results from pathologists is often time consuming.

“The doctor may take it out, may have to send it to the pathologist for a frozen section. Meanwhile, everyone’s waiting for a report from the pathologist to see if the margin’s clear,” said Dr. Leonard Lichtenfeld, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society.

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Furthermore, Lichtenfeld says the failure to remove all cancerous tissue during surgery can create more complications down the road.

“The real question is, if you don’t get all the cancer out, does that leave a place? A sanctuary, if you would, where tumor cells can stay and come back or even migrate to other parts of the body at a later time?” said Lichtenfeld.

But, just because the cancer pen is fast doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. Researchers say after analyzing 300 patient samples, they were able to diagnose four types of cancer-breast, thyroid, ovarian, and lung cancer-with over 96 percent accuracy, eliminating the risks of unnecessarily removing normal tissue.

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“It’s going to provide great benefits to patients and also to the healthcare system,” said Sans.

Still, Lichtenfeld is cautiously optimistic.

“We have to remember that it’s a long way from concept to proving it really works to get it used by doctors in real life. We don’t know the answer to that yet, and, clearly, the researchers understand that they have more work to do,” he said.

The MasSpec Pen hasn’t been tested on a human during surgery yet. Over the next several months, three of the devices will be installed in Texas hospitals: Dell Medical School, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Baylor College of Medicine.

The FDA process has to approve the technology, as well; the regulatory process could take a few years.

Madeleine Rivera is a multimedia reporter based in Houston, Texas.