The MasSpec Pen rapidly and accurately detects cancer in humans during surgery, helping improve treatment and reduce the chances of cancer recurrence. Credit: University of Texas at Austin

A new tool can identify cancerous tissue during surgery in a matter of seconds.

A team from the University of Texas at Austin has created a tool that rapidly and accurately delivers cancer results in about 10 seconds—more than 150 times faster than existing tools.

The tool—called the MasSpec Pen—is handheld and gives surgeons precise diagnostic information about what tissue to cut or preserve to help improve treatment and reduce the chances of cancer recurrence and side effects.

“If you talk to cancer patients after surgery, one of the first things many will say is 'I hope the surgeon got all the cancer out’,” Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry at UT Austin, said in a statement. “It's just heartbreaking when that's not the case.

“But our technology could vastly improve the odds that surgeons really do remove every last trace of cancer during surgery,” she added.

Frozen Section Analysis is currently the preferred method for diagnosing cancers and determining the boundary between cancer and normal tissue during surgery.    

However, each sample can take more than 30 minutes to prepare and interpret by a pathologist, increasing the risk to the patient of infection and negative effects of anesthesia.

Also it is difficult to interpret some types of cancers using Frozen Section Analysis, leading to unreliable results for 10 to 20 percent of cases.

The researchers removed both normal and cancerous tissue from 253 cancer patients and found that the new tool provided a diagnosis within 10 seconds that was more than 96 percent accurate.

They also detected cancer in marginal regions between normal and cancerous tissues that presented mixed cellular composition.

“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, head of endocrine surgery at Baylor College of Medicine and a collaborator on the project, said in a statement. “This technology does all three.

“It allows us to be much more precise in what tissue we remove and what we leave behind.”

While reducing the risk of missing cancerous tissue, the new technology also decreases the odds surgeons remove too much tissue during surgery, which could cause painful side effects, nerve damage, the loss of speech or reduce the body’s ability to regulate calcium levels in ways that are important for muscle and nerve function.

Surgeons can hold the pen against the patient’s tissue and trigger the automated analysis with a foot pedal. The pen releases a drop of water onto the tissue and small molecules migrate into the water, which enables the device to drive the water sample into an instrument called a mass spectrometer to detect thousands of molecules as a molecular fingerprint.

The study was published in Science Translational Medicine.