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Handheld 'pen' may bring real-time cancer diagnosis to surgeons' fingertips

Scientists have developed a handheld probe capable of non-destructively distinguishing between tumours and healthy tissue within 10 seconds, which could enable rapid cancer diagnoses and help surgeons remove all traces of malignant masses during operations.

Residual cancer after surgery puts patients at risk for relapses, but most pathology labs require several days to evaluate if tumour cells remain in samples taken during operations.

Seeking a more effective way to analyse tissues in real-time, Jialing Zhang et al. created the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that gently extracts molecules from tissue using tiny volumes of water (10 microliters, or roughly one-fifth the size of a single drop), that then transfers the samples through flexible tubing to a mass spectrometer (an instrument that calculates the masses of molecules contained in a sample).

After analysing 253 human patient samples from lung, ovary, thyroid, and breast tumours as well as healthy tissues, the scientists developed a "molecular profile" that could identify cancers with 96.4% sensitivity, 96.2% specificity, and 96.3% accuracy.

The researchers went on to show that the MasSpec Pen reliably identified tumours in living mice and importantly, did not cause any damage to healthy tissues.

Unlike existing mass spectrometry tools that require harsh solvents, pressurised gasses, or high voltages, the MasSpec Pen gathers molecules for analysis using only water.

Additionally, the MasSpec Pen's tip was 3-D printed with a safe and biocompatible material called PDMS.

The authors say investigating larger sample sets may make the MasSpec Pen even more accurate, and allow it to diagnose a wider range of tumours from different types of tissues.

Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science

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