The MasSpec Pen (left) may help cancer surgeons determine the edges of tumors in the operating room; researchers used it to analyze thyroid tissue ex vivo (right) and are now testing it in vivo with human patients. Source: Eberlin lab/University of Texas at AustinThe MasSpec Pen (left) may help cancer surgeons determine the edges of tumors in the operating room; researchers used it to analyze thyroid tissue ex vivo (right) and are now testing it in vivo with human patients. Source: Eberlin lab/University of Texas at AustinResearchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a pen-like device to help surgeons distinguish between where a tumor begins and where it ends — a possible marker of a successful cancer surgery.

The device, which has been dubbed the “MasSpec Pen” is a handheld biocompatible device that may soon help surgeons make the distinction between healthy and cancerous tissue with greater accuracy and within mere seconds during surgery.

The device is attached to a mass spectrometer and it quickly identifies the molecular profile of tissue during the surgery by depositing a droplet of water on the surface of exposed tissue for three seconds. The droplet is then transferred to the mass spectrometer where identification of the molecules from the tissue takes place. Machine learning algorithms are then applied and sort through the molecular data and automatically offer surgeons a diagnosis to act upon.

"We have developed the MasSpec Pen so that the surgeon just has to touch the tissue with the pen, and trigger the system with a foot pedal," said principal investigator Livia Eberlin, Ph.D. "From there, everything is coded and automated so that the whole process is completed in under 10 seconds."

Challenging for most cancer surgeons is being able to make the distinction between where a tumor begins and where it ends. This is because taking away too much tissue can disrupt normal functions while not removing enough increases the odds that the cancer will return. According to related studies, surgeries considered the most successful are those that have removed the most cancer while also preserving the most normal tissue.

The MasSpec Pen was designed with that in mind, according to its developers, who believe that offering onsite molecular information in the operating room will improve the speed, and, potentially, the outcomes, of surgical decisions.

Traditionally, the method most medical professionals rely on to determine tumor margins is a 100-year-old technique called histopathology wherein a tissue sample is extracted during surgery and transported to the lab. Once there, the sample is flash-frozen, sectioned, stained and examined using a microscope. This procedure can take roughly 30 minutes while the surgeon and the anesthetized patient are left waiting. Although largely effective for a variety of surgeries, particularly cancer-related surgeries, histopathology can be complicated by the freezing step where artifacts from that step can muddle interpretations, according to researchers. As such, the team responded to that complication by developing the MasSpec Pen.

To date, the MasSpec Pen has been tested on over 800 human tissues including both normal and cancerous breast, pancreatic, brain, lung, thyroid and ovarian tissues ex vivo. Currently, the team is testing the device on in vivo tissue.

"We are continuing research and development of this technology in my lab by continuing to improve our technology and validating its performance across different cancer types," Eberlin said. "We are also exploring new applications in surgery including minimally invasive surgical procedures, as well as outside the operating room in forensics and agricultural applications."

The researchers will present their findings at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2019 National Meeting & Exposition held Aug. 25 through Aug. 29 in San Diego.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com