The “pen” will replace slow and faulty methods of determining whether or not tissue is cancerous. 

Researchers at the University of Texas Austin have developed a new piece of equipment that will help surgeons to act quickly and more precisely during cancer surgery.  

The MasSpec “cancer” Pen takes only 10 seconds to detect whether or not a tumour is cancerous.

The pen works by releasing a tiny droplet of water. The droplet picks up living cells before being sucked back into the pen.

From there, the droplet travels up a flexible tube and into type of machine called a mass spectrometer. In the mass spectrometer, analysis happens quickly. The mass of thousands of chemicals can be analysed every second. Because cancer cells grow quickly, they are easy for the mass spectrometer to identify.

Once the cells have been analysed, the mass spectrometer feeds the result to a nearby computer screen: “Normal” or “Cancer.” In some cases, the cancer subtype might also appear on the screen.

In early studies, the MasSpec Pen has been more than 96% accurate in differentiating between normal cells and cancer cells.

The pen’s development will help surgeons to ensure that they remove all parts of a cancerous tumour. Currently, it’s very difficult to distinguish between normal tissue and cancerous tissue at the “edges” of a tumour. Some types of tumours are very clear and distinct, but others are fuzzier and harder to recognize.

Removing all of a tumour – no more and no less – is especially important in sensitive parts of the body, like the brain. Removing too much tissue could cause a loss of mobility or speech. Removing too little could leave cancer cells in the body.

Because the MasSpec Pen works in “real time” while a patient is on the operating table, surgeons should be able to quickly make a decision about what tissue to remove and what to leave in place.

The pen was specifically designed to be low-impact and safe for use on patients in the middle of surgery, Dr. Jialing Zhang (University of Texas Austin) describes. “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.”

Scientists hope to begin trialling the pen in operations beginning next year.