Cancer pen can sample cells before surgery

Published: Jun. 4, 2020 at 11:24 AM EDT
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(06/04/2020) -- It’s called the ‘cancer pen’ and is used to help diagnose cancerous tumors. When this tiny device is held next to human tissue, it detects whether it is cancerous or benign.

What does this tiny device mean for those on the front lines of battling cancer?

Francis Manzo is an active, former Houston policeman, but recently, life stood still when doctors suspected a simple black spot on his neck might be thyroid cancer and suggested surgery.

Manzo recalled, “He left the decision to us and along with my family, we decided that it was probably the safer route, to go ahead have it removed, that spot removed.”

James Suliburk, MD, chief of endocrine surgery at Baylor College of Medicine explained to Ivanhoe, “His biopsy of the nodule showed an indeterminate biopsy, which then meant that he had to have surgery, to obtain a diagnosis.”

“Had I had the opportunity to have it checked and discovered that it was benign, and not half of my gland removed, I would’ve been definitely in favor of that”, Manzo shared.

“And this is where our cancer pen comes into play. We’re hoping that we increase the diagnostic accuracy of these thyroid biopsies that are obtained,” Dr. Suliburk clarified.

Here’s how the cancer pen works: during the OR biopsy, the pen releases a drop of water onto the tissue. Small molecules migrate into that water, leaving a footprint, which are analyzed by computer.

“During the surgery, we will use the cancer pen, or the MasSpec pen, to sample the cells of the thyroid that we’re going to take out as part of their normal clinical treatments,” Dr. Suliburk told Ivanhoe.

“Currently, around 20 percent of patients who undergo a biopsy of the thyroid will have an indeterminate result. We want to bring that number down to less than five percent,” Dr. Suliburk stated.

A small device poised to make a big impact.

The cancer pen is meant to keep patients out of the operating room, by diagnosing before cutting.

Researchers say it could be a valuable tool for detecting not only thyroid but several other types of cancer. It is still in the pre-clinical research phase and that puts it about one or two years away from full clinical use, according to Dr. Suliburk.

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