Researchers have developed a hand-held mass spectrometry device that allows for “rapid and nondestructive” diagnosis of human cancer tissues in vivo and ex vivo.

When the ‘MasSpec Pen’ touches tissue, it delivers a water droplet that extracts molecules from the tissue sample. The water droplet is then drawn into a mass spectrometer, which rapidly identifies (~10 seconds) the molecular composition of the tissue. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, who developed the MasSpec Pen device, tested its capability on 20 thin tissue sections (including breast tissue, thyroid tissue, papillary thyroid carcinoma, and follicular thyroid adenoma tissue) and 253 human patient tissue samples (including lung, ovary, thyroid and breast samples) some normal and some cancerous.  

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Results – garnered using statistical classifiers from the histologically validated molecular database –  allowed for cancer prediction with high sensitivity (96.4%), specificity (96.2%), and overall accuracy (96.3%). The pen could potentially be used for diagnosis and during surgery, allowing cancer surgeons to better determine the delicate boundary when excising tissue between cancerous and normal tissues.

Additionally, the pen was able to predict histologic subtypes of lung cancer and benign and malignant thyroid tumors. 

The authors pointed out how current mass spectrometry (MS) based techniques such as the iKnife, with its electrocauterization process, can cause thermal damage of the analyzed tissue. In a paper detailing their research published in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers stated how they “Expect that the excellent performance and simple design and operation of the MasSpec Pen, combined with its clinically desirable features, may enable its translation to the clinic for routine medical use, improving patient care and treatment.”

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