A group of scientists and engineers at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin (USA) have invented a small portable device that identifies cancerous tissue during surgery in about 10 seconds. The results of the work have been published in the latest issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine.
The so-called MasSpec Pen is shaped like a pen and provides surgeons with accurate information about which tissue to remove or conserve. The authors point out that the system could allow rapid diagnosis of cancer and help eliminate all traces of malignant masses during operations.
The device gently extracts molecules from tissues using small volumes of water (10 microliters, or about one-fifth the size of a single drop). In the process, it releases the tiny drop of water onto the tissue and small molecules migrate towards it. The device then drives the aqueous sample through flexible tubes to a mass spectrometer, which detects thousands of molecules as a molecular imprint.
According to the study, the method of analysis of histological cut used today is slow and sometimes inaccurate. The result can take 30 minutes or more – between preparation and interpretation by a pathologist – which increases the risks of infection and the negative effects of anesthesia. In addition, unreliable results can occur between 10% and 20% of cases.
However, “in the tissue tests extracted from 253 patients with lung, ovary, thyroid and breast tumors as well as healthy samples, MasSpec Pen took only 10 seconds to provide a diagnosis with 96.3% accuracy,” he comments. to Sinc Livia S. Eberlin, professor at UT Austin and leader of the work.
The device extracts the molecules from the tissues using small volumes of water, which then transfers the samples through flexible tubes to a mass spectrometer.
The technology was also able to detect cancer in the marginal regions between normal and cancerous tissues that had a mixed cellular composition.
Living cells, whether healthy or cancerous, produce small molecules called metabolites. These molecules are involved in all important life processes – such as energy generation, growth and reproduction – as well as other useful functions such as the elimination of toxins. Each type of cancer produces a unique set of metabolites and other biomarkers that act as fingerprints.
“Cancer cells have a deregulated metabolism because they grow out of control,” says the researcher. “Because the metabolites in cancer and normal cells are so different, we extract them and analyze them with MasSpec Pen to obtain a molecular imprint of the tissue.” The incredible thing is that through this simple chemical process, the device rapidly provides molecular information of diagnosis without causing tissue damage, “she adds.
The molecular fingerprint obtained by the device from an uncharacterized tissue sample is evaluated instantaneously by software, called a statistical classifier. This program has been trained with the database of molecular fingerprints that Eberlin and colleagues collected from the 253 samples of normal and cancerous human tissue.
Doctors can use this portable and disposable device easily. Just place it on the patient’s tissue, activate the automated analysis with a pedal and wait a few seconds to get the result.
“The entire procedure has a very low impact on the patient. We have achieved a biocompatible and automated technology and hope to begin testing it in cancer surgeries in 2018,” Marta Sans, a Spanish researcher at UT Austin and co-author of the paper, explains.
“However, the commercial phase will have to wait,” says Sans, who says: “First we need to validate our results and refine the device after the clinical trials we will start next year.”