This pen can detect cancer in 10 seconds

A new handheld pen-like device built by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin can detect cancer tissue in as little as 10 seconds.

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Tests published this week in the journal “Science Translational Medicine,” suggest the tool, called the MasSpec Pen, is accurate 96 percent of the time.

The pen was used during the ex vivo molecular analysis (extraction of molecules) of 20 human cancer thin tissue sections and 253 human patient tissue samples, including both normal and cancerous samples in the breast, lung, thyroid and ovary.

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The molecules analyzed in each sample showed a wide variety of potential cancer biomarkers, such as lipids, proteins and metabolites.

And, as aforementioned, the tests showed a 96 percent overall accuracy in cancer predictions, including identification of benign and malignant thyroid tumors and subtypes of lung cancer.

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How the MasSpec Pen works

  • It is used in real time during surgery.
  • When touching the pen to an area of the patient’s body, a drop of water extracts tiny molecules from the patient’s tissue.
  • The MasSpec Pen is plugged into a mass spectrometer, which can measure and analyze those molecules. 
  • The spectrometer also tells surgeons whether or not the molecules they’re looking at are healthy tissue or cancerous.
  • In just a matter of seconds, the surgeons can then identify the location of the cancerous tissue that needs to be cut, making it that much easier to ensure none of the cancer is left behind.

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In their research, scientists also used the device for in vivo cancer diagnosis in mice. “In vivo” refers to testing on the entire organism, not just on tissue.

They found the pen was suited for diagnosis during surgery performed in tumor-bearing mouse models without any observable tissue harm or stress to the animal.

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The next step for the scientists is to continue refining the pen to analyze finer patches of tissues.

Currently, the pen can analyze a 0.06 inch patch of tissue, but according to the BBC, researchers have already developed pens that can analyze 0.02 inch patches.

“Any time we can offer the patient a more precise surgery, a quicker surgery or a safer surgery, that's something we want to do,” James Suliburk, one of the study’s lead researchers and the head of endocrine surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, told the BBC. “This technology does all three.”

Read the full study at

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