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Community // October 12, 2017 MAAC Staff

How New Technology Can Detect Cancer in Just Seconds

Diagnosing cancer or identifying all the cancerous tissue during surgery can be a lengthy process. In general, a biopsy is the only clear way to have an exact cancer diagnosis, which can take several days to complete and receive results. The current standard oncologists use during surgery to identify and remove all tumors and cancerous tissue also takes time.

This process, known as frozen section analysis, takes 30 minutes to prepare and analyze tissue to either diagnose cancer or help separate healthy tissue from diseased tissue that needs to be removed. This process has been found by researchers to be rather inaccurate at times, as well as causing more risks to the patient, like infection.

With this in mind, a multidisciplinary team of researchers in medicine, chemistry and engineering came together at the University of Texas at Austin to develop what is now called the MasSpec Pen. This new tool has the potential to identify cancer for diagnosis or removal during surgery in just seconds, with proven accuracy more than 96% of the time. This tool can be a powerful weapon in better, earlier detection of cancer, and improved treatment during oncologic surgery.

How the MasSpec Pen Works

The MasSpec Pen is a small handheld device that can operate in real-time, effectively improving the labor and time intensive diagnostic standards in place today. The pen is non-destructive to the tissue, in that it operates with a simple drop of water and brief contact with the pen itself. Surgeons simply have to hold the device against the patient’s tissue and step on a foot pedal. This will release a drop of water that will collect molecules to create a molecular footprint.

Each type of cancer produces its own unique molecules, known as metabolites, and biomarkers that would be collected by the water for analysis. As this process occurs, the uncharacterized data will be analyzed instantaneously through a software program that has a current database of 253 human tissue samples for comparison. These samples include both healthy tissue, as well as cancerous tissue of the lungs, ovaries, breast and thyroid.

Upon analysis, the computer screen will say “Normal” or “Cancer,” and in some cases may specify a subtype, which is an area of data the team hopes to expand in the future. So far, the device has been at least 96% accurate in identifying the cancerous tissues.

Though it’s unclear how long it will be until the device is widely available for hospitals and other medical centers, the team plans on continuing to improve the device and the database and will be moving into clinical trials in 2018.

The Benefits of This Technology

In the early studies of this technology, the team of researchers and medical field have seen many potential benefits of the pen’s use. As mentioned, the pen is non-invasive and won’t destroy or harm healthy tissue in its analysis. Its use will also allow surgeons to more easily tell the difference between normal, healthy cells and cancerous areas that need to be removed. Currently, removing cancerous tissue can be quite the delicate process to avoid harming healthy cells.

Today’s standard options for surgeons to better differentiate between healthy and cancerous tissue during an operation may even be harmful to the patient, as many involve gases or solvents. This pen can allow surgeons to maintain the integrity of various organs and tissues by more accurately being able to spare areas that haven’t been infected by cancer, with no harm done to the patient. With more invasive surgeries, there’s always the chance of more painful side effects and nerve damage. The MasSpec Pen has the potential to avoid those problems.

In addition to improving the accuracy of oncologic surgeries, this new technology can also make a difference in more accurate diagnoses. In addition to their studies of tissue samples, the team of researchers also used the device on living mice that displayed tumors. The pen was able to properly diagnose the cancer during diagnostic surgery without causing any harm to the tissue or animals.

The MasSpec Pen and Mesothelioma

Though there are still likely years of testing ahead before the MasSpec Pen will be approved and widely available, it holds great potential for any type of cancer. While the current database includes only a small variety of the over 200 types of cancer, the team explained they will be working on expanding the database and making the pen more universal. As this technology continues to develop, the possibilities are very exciting for doctors and patients.

Mesothelioma, along with many other rare and even common cancers, poses a lot of difficulty in even being detected. Mesothelioma develops over decades after exposure to asbestos, with the lining of the lungs (or abdomen or heart) becoming irritated and scarred by the asbestos fibers slowly. As such, it can take many years for tumors to even develop and symptoms to start to show. Patients typically aren’t properly diagnosed until the mesothelioma is already more advanced, and some treatment options may not be viable for their case.

The potential of this device to detect unhealthy cells early on could make a big difference in mesothelioma patient’s life expectancy, which is typically quite poor. This pen could also help make a difference in surgical treatment they may be eligible to receive upon an earlier diagnosis. Though any surgical options used for diagnosis are often minimally invasive, many of the surgeries involved in curative treatment for mesothelioma are often quite intensive. One option even involves the removal of the entire lung among other affected surrounding areas. This device could allow surgeons to opt for more lung-sparing techniques, and hopefully reduce the painful side effects of such massive surgeries.

While it may not be clear just how the MasSpec Pen can fully impact all kinds of cancer, including mesothelioma, there’s no doubt as it moves into clinical trials that patients and researchers are hopeful for its future. Hopefully with further testing and development, this device can help revolutionize how we detect and diagnose cancer.