“We found dangerous cancer, and we need to operate immediately.” No one wants to hear those words. The fact that surgery can even be contemplated throws a faint light of hope. The next concern is whether the surgeons were able to find and remove all cancerous tissue during the procedure. “Did you get it all?” is a common question following surgery. And it’s a tough question to answer. Frozen Section Analysis (FSA) ranks as state-of-the-art for diagnosing cancerous cells and demarking the line between cancerous and healthy tissue. The downsides of FSA include an average 30 minute wait to prep and interpret samples. The error rate can be between 10 to 20% for some cancers. The risk of infection and the danger of longer time under anesthesia while waiting for FSA results add to the surgeon’s urgency to close, according to scientists at the University of Texas at Austin.

UT Austin and Baylor College of Medicine researchers — working in collaboration with engineering, medical, and pathology personnel from other Texas institutions — have developed a disposable, handheld device to detect cancerous tissue during surgery. The device is called the MasSpec Pen. During surgery, when the surgeon holds the pen against tissue it returns a reading within 10 seconds. The pen works by analyzing metabolites at the molecular level to determine the presence of cancerous cells.

In a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine in September 2017, the MasSpec Pen was more than 96% accurate at differentiating between cancer and healthy cells in tissues from 253 human cancer patients. The device is low-impact on patients, so it sounds as if there’s no downside. UT Austin’s Jialing Zhang spoke of the urgency driving the team, “The result is a biocompatible and automated medical device that we are so excited to translate to the clinic very soon.”

The MasSpec Pen is more medical-focused than most of the wearable and handheld Health Tech devices that we typically cover here. However, the dramatic results of the study and the potential increase in confidence that the surgeons did indeed “get all the cancer out” is a huge win for all. And it points the way toward the development of other sophisticated hand-held bio-analytical devices of other applications that could be used by physicians and even consumers.