Instant Cancer Check Identifies Cancer in Seconds

Identifying cancer early is a crucial step toward effective treatment. But the current detection method is slow and may not be accurate. A new handheld device may make detecting cancer quicker and more accurate.

by Meredith Nelson
October 16, 2017

A handheld device developed by an interdisciplinary group of researchers in chemistry, engineering, and medicine at the University of Texas identifies cancer in seconds.

Identifying cancer early is a crucial step toward effective treatment. But the existing cancer-detection method, called frozen section analysis, is slow and inaccurate in as many as 10 to 20 percent of cases for some types of cancer. Each sample can take 30 minutes or more to prepare and interpret by a pathologist, increasing the patient’s risk of infection and the danger of prolonged anesthesia.

“Knowing how long it takes to clip out a piece of tissue and harvest it for pathogens raises the bar on whether you need to do it,” said Thomas Milner, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Milner is involved with research to develop a device that does the same job 150 times faster with a drop of water. The "MasSpec Pen" identifies cancer in 10 seconds.

Drawing out Biomarkers

Milner met assistant chemistry professor Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, who designed the study and led the team, in 2015. “Livia told me she had a dream of a pen-type device for detecting cancer,” Milner recalled, “and I said I think we can help you build that.”

The MasSpec pen checks tissue for evidence of cancer.

Living cells produce biomolecules, and those in cancer cells are radically different from healthy ones. Each type of cancer produces a unique set of biomarkers. Touching the pen to suspect tissue, or even a drop of water extracted from it, enables the device to draw out these biomarkers, which are then suctioned via tubing to a mass spectrometer. 

The biomaterial is analyzed by software trained on a database of molecular fingerprints that Eberlin and her colleagues gathered from 253 human tissue samples, including both normal and cancerous tissues of the breast, lung, thyroid, and ovary. Depending on whether the biomarkers correspond to tissues in the database, the software returns a verdict: Either normal tissue or cancer. Tests on tissue samples suggest the technology is accurate 96 percent of the time.

Portable and Cheaper

Milner oversaw the pen’s design through numerous iterations, tweaking microvalves, low-pressure vacuum suction, and the like, fine-tuning it from analyzing a 1.5-mm (0.06-in.) patch of tissue to a swatch just 0.6 mm across. 

The hope is that such quick and accurate results will empower surgeons to excise all the cancerous tissue from a patient while taking as little healthy tissue as necessary. Slated for trials during actual surgery in 2018, and with companies and labs around the world scrambling to build cheaper, portable mass spectrometers, the handheld, disposable MasSpec Pen may also evolve into an inexpensive means of saving lives. 

Meredith Nelson is a technology writer in New York City.