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

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‘The Pen’ technology to detect cancerous tissue in real-time

Researchers develop pen for the detection of cancer.

Imagine if you could detect cancer within seconds. A group of researchers from the University of Texas in Austin say they have the technology to do that. The MasSpec Pen, which was exhibited at SXSW this week, you may identify cancer tissue during an operation in real-time.

“The MasSpec Pen is a handheld device linked to a mass spectrometer with the diagnosis of cancer during the surgery in twenty seconds,” said Marta Sans, graduate research assistant for the Livia Eberlin Research Group.
 
The pen makes use of touch to establish a diagnosis. It is placed over the tissue. A foot pedal activates 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.

Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin say the MasSpec Pen makes use of touch for diagnosis of cancer tissue during surgery. (Fox News)

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

For doctors, the technology is ground-breaking. The determine of cancer tissue from normal tissue during surgery, it is sometimes difficult and wait for the results of pathologists is often time-consuming.

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

Researchers say that the pen was 96 percent accurate in the detection of four types of cancer: breast, ovary, thyroid, and lung cancer. (Fox News)

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In addition, Lichtenfeld says it cannot remove all forms of cancer tissue during the surgery, it may lead to more complications on the way.
 
“The real question is, if you did not get the cancer, there is a place? A sanctuary, if you would, where the tumor cells may remain 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 does not mean that it is not right. Researchers say that after the analysis of 300 samples of patients, they were able to diagnose the four types of cancer of the breast, thyroid, ovary and lung cancer-with more than 96 percent accuracy, eliminating the risk of unnecessary removal of normal tissue.

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“It’s going to provide great benefits for the patient and to the healthcare system,” said Sans.
 
Still, Lichtenfeld is cautiously optimistic.
 
“We must not forget that it is a long way from the concept to prove that it really works to get it used by doctors in real life. We don’t know the answer to that question yet, and it is clear that the researchers understand that they have more work to do,” he said.
 
The MasSpec Pen has not been tested on a human during surgery, not yet. In the next few months, three of the devices to be installed in Texas hospitals: the Dell Medical School, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Baylor College of Medicine.
 
The FDA process of approving of the technique; the regulatory process can take a few years.
 

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

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