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UT researchers create cancer-detecting surgical pen

University of Texas researchers have created a surgical device that detects cancer in seconds. (CBS Austin)

University of Texas researchers have created a surgical device that detects cancer in seconds.

Wednesday, the team had their revolutionary cancer treatment technology published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The device, which they're calling the MasSpec Pen, is a handheld instrument that could help surgeons remove more cancer and spare more healthy tissue on the operating table.

"Surgeons normally remove the bulk of the tumor and then you get to the edges of the tumor and it's really difficult to tell when to stop cutting," explains assistant chemistry professor Livia Eberlin. She says, surgeons will touch the tissue with the tip of the pen which then delivers a tiny droplet of water. The water extracts biomolecules that are sent to a machine and analyzed in 10 seconds.

Prior to the pen, sending tissue for testing during could take upwards of half an hour -- increasing the risk.

"The surgeon has to wait there and the patient is open [on the operating table], so there's complications with that," Eberlin says.

She and a team of about 15 others from UT Austin, MD Anderson and Baylor College of Medicine collaborated on the project. They started developing the pen two years ago. So far they've tested it in 253 human tissue samples with a 96 percent accuracy rate. The process is low-impact for patients and does not result in tissue damage due to the molecular technology. By providing better technology than what's currently available Eberlin hopes she and her team can enable doctors to make more live-saving decisions.

"The final goal really always is improving survival, extending peoples' lives and just bringing better quality of life and treatment to cancer patients," she says.

The pen still has a long way to go before you'll see it used in oncology centers across the country. Eberlin and her team expect the MasSpec pen to start being tested live in surgeries in early 2018.

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