"MasSpec Pen" Can Accurately Detect Cancer During Surgery

21 September 2019


A new handheld device presented in August, the “MasSpec Pen”, would allow surgeons to determine where cancerous tissue begins and ends in a matter of seconds right in the operating room.

Cancer surgeons aim for a very precise target: they want to remove all of the tissue that contains cancer cells, but not enough to impair normal organ function. Being able to quickly determine the boundaries of the area to be removed could allow for faster and more effective surgeries.

Although the current method used, histopathology, is effective for most surgeries, it takes an average of 30 minutes to complete, and sometimes produces difficult-to-interpret results. The surgeon and patient wait while a sample of the tissue being operated on is flash-frozen, sectioned, stained, and examined in a separate lab with a microscope. Surgeons then use the lab data to decide how to operate.

The MasSpec pen uses a high-performance mass spectrometer to analyze tissue on the molecular level in under 10 seconds, with only a touch and a press of a foot pedal. First, a small droplet of water is applied to the exposed tissue for about three seconds. The droplet is then transferred to the mass spectrometer, which identifies molecules from the tissue. Machine learning algorithms analyze these molecules, and the end result is a predictive diagnosis.

Currently the MasSpec pen has completed more than 800 tests on non-living tissue, including cancerous and noncancerous breast, brain, pancreatic, thyroid, lung, and ovarian tissue samples, and is being tested on living patients at the Texas Medical Center. The results appear promising, and principle investigator Livia Eberlin, Ph.D, says that development will continue. 

They are also testing other possible applications for the technology, including making surgical procedures less invasive and analyzing molecular data in forensics and agricultural settings.