This 3-D printed pen lets surgeons detect cancer in 10 seconds

A team of scientists and engineers from the University of Texas at Austin may have figured out a fast and accurate way to diagnose tumors using a pen-sized device.

The MasSpec Pen can detect cancer of the breast, thyroid, lung, ovaries and brain with 96.5 percent accuracy, based on an initial test of over 250 patient tissue samples, said Livia Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry and the study's designer.

"What we developed is a handheld device that by touching the tissue, extracts molecules that are characteristic of normal or cancerous tissue," Eberlin said. "Then we analyze these molecules using a high-performance mass spectrometer and, using machine learning and software tools, provide a predictive diagnosis to the surgeon in less than 10 seconds."

The current method for spotting cancerous tissue during surgery is called frozen section analysis, which requires that a sample be removed from the patient and examined under a microscope. That process can take 30 minutes or more, during which time the patient faces an increased risk of infection and negative effects of anesthesia, Eberlin said.

The team hopes to expand the pen's diagnostic capabilities to include all solid tumors.

Eberlin said the next step is to conduct clinical trials to test the pen during surgeries, with procedures expected to begin within two months. Adoption of the MasSpec Pen will likely hinge on whether the device gets FDA approval.

Costs are also a big question for health-care providers. Although the pen itself is disposable and fairly cheap to make (it's 3-D printed), hospitals will need to make a big upfront investment in the mass spectrometer.

Results of the study can be found in the journal Science of Translational Medicine.