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This Pen Can Pinpoint Cancer in 10 Seconds

University of Texas at Austin

Different cancers spread and act in different ways and scientists often have a hard time containing each individual case.

Sometimes doctors overestimate a cancer and excise too much of a person’s body, causing collateral harm. Sometimes doctors underestimate a cancer and remove too little of a disease or decide against surgery altogether.

Almost all of the time, it’s hard to figure out how to proceed with 100% confidence.

A new “pen,” however, is hoping to end this heartbreaking uncertainty.

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The MasSpec Pen can identify cancerous cells within 10 seconds, according to the BBC, and researchers hope that it can ultimately give medical professionals far more confidence in determining the scope of a cancer.  

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This new medical pen works by ejecting a droplet of water onto a tissue sample, waiting for the water to absorb surrounding chemicals, and then sucking the droplet back up.

The pen is then plugged into a mass spectrometer, which measures the weight of the various chemicals collected within the sample.

A “chemical fingerprint” is then produced that doctors can analyze for traces of cancer. The pen, which was developed by scientists at the University of Texas, has been accurate in assessing the state of a cancer in tissue cells in 96% of trial runs so far, according to research published in Science Translational Medicine.

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If deployed to the mass market, the pen could help doctors make sure no cancer is left behind in a patient and to make sure healthy cells are left alone, according to the BBC.

This is especially useful for organs such as the brain, which can lose important functions if too much tissue is removed.

The team at the University of Texas note that one major obstacle stands in the way of the pen’s accessibility — the price of mass spectrometers.

While the pen is relatively cheap, mass spectrometers are prohibitively expensive, meaning the technology is unlikely to be of much use to doctors in underfunded medical centers especially in the developing world.

They’re trying to develop a cheaper alternative to the current mass spectrometer so that the pen can be more widely adopted.

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More than 8.8 million people die each year from cancer, and up to 50% of cancers can be prevented around the world, according to the World Health Organization.

Preventative measures and regular visits to the doctor can help to keep cancer numbers down, but when it strikes, this pen could be a useful tool in the ever-expanding arsenal against the disease.  

"Any time we can offer the patient a more precise surgery, a quicker surgery or a safer surgery, that's something we want to do,” Dr. James Suliburk, one of the researchers and on the team, told the BBC.

"This technology does all three."