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A smart pen for cancer screening

A 3D printed pen to scan tissue and feed data into a mass spectrometry for fast cancer detection. Credit: Vivian Abagiu, Univ. of Texas at Austin

A team of researchers at Austin University has announced the creation of a sensor, in shape of a pen, that can detect molecules for spectroscopy analyses leading to the detection of cancerous cells.

The pen is 3D printed and is used by a doctor to touch a tissue, both in vivo or a sample taken through biopsy. The tip of the pen eject a water drop and then re-absorb it along with micro tissue samples that have been embedded in the droplet. This solution is analysed by a mass spectrometry system to detect the presence of cancerous cells. The whole process, and this is the big “plus”, takes just 10 seconds versus the days, and sometimes weeks, needed today for tissue analyses.

The team is presenting the results in an article published on Science Translational Magazine.

The device, called MasSpec Pen, allows the controlled ejection of a water droplet for the efficient extraction of biomolecules. It can be used during surgery to detect the presence of cancerous cells in “real time”. So far it has been tested for lung, ovary, breast and thyroid cancer and researchers are working to extend it to the detection of other types of cancer.

The pen is “small” but the equipment performing the spectrometry analyses is bulky and requires a dedicated space and skilled technicians to operate. Hence the whole procedure has to take place in an hospital. Also, notice that the “pen” is not a sensor picking up data that being bits could be sent wirelessly anywhere. It picks up biomolecules, atoms that need to be taken physically to the spectrometry equipment.  In spite of all these limitations it represents a huge step forward in cancer screening. So far it is still in the research-experimentation phase, it has been tested on over 250 human tissues samples showing an accuracy over 95%, which is pretty good when dealing with “bio”.

The goal now is to bring it into clinical practice.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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