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Diagnostics Oncology, Analytical science

Writing Off Cancer

Meet the MasSpec Pen, a handheld mass spectrometry device with the potential to speed up accurate and intraoperative diagnosis of human cancer. The pen – which releases a single water droplet onto suspected cancer tissue before drawing it back up for chemical analysis – was able to predict cancer with high sensitivity (96.4 percent), specificity (96.2 percent), and an overall accuracy of 96.3 percent (1).

Finding and removing the edges of cancerous tissue by sight alone is a particular challenge for surgeons, and successful resection of all the cancerous tissue clearly has huge health implications for the patient. The resulting demand for precise, accurate and rapid detection has already inspired one similar device: the electrosurgical iKnife, which uses rapid evaporative ionization mass spectrometry (2). Both approaches use mass spectrometry, but the MasSpec Pen has one major difference: unlike the iKnife, which burns the target tissue and uses the smoke for analysis, it doesn’t destroy tissue as it analyzes it.

The MasSpec Pen was conceived  by Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of Texas at Austin – but for this small, yet seemingly mighty technology, it is only the beginning.

“We are going to further validate the technology with larger sample sets and expand to other cancer types – then we’ll start testing in surgeries with our colleagues in the Texas Medical Center to compare our results with current results from clinical practice,” says Eberlin. “Next, we should expand to larger clinical trials to properly evaluate if the technology can improve surgical treatment and patient care.” Eberlin and team hope to be able to trial the device during operations within the next 12 months.

Eberlin says it is very rewarding to work on a project with such high potential impact. “I am very passionate about the field, and specifically about developing mass spectrometry technology that can make a real difference in clinical practice,” she says. “We hope pathologists will be excited to have one more tool in their tool-set. If we are successful, we will hopefully be helping surgeons and pathologists by expediting the process of surgical margin evaluation during surgery, meaning less time in the frozen room for surgical pathologists. My amazing research team and I have been working extremely hard on this project. It is amazing to see what they have accomplished so quickly!”

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  1. J Zhang et al., “Nondestructive tissue analysis for ex vivo and in vivo cancer diagnosis using a handheld mass spectrometry system”, Sci Transl Med, 9, eaan3968 (2017).
  2. J Nicholson, RMA Heeren, “Pioneers of Precision”, The Pathologist, 6, 18–27 (2015). Available at:
About the Author
Joanna Cummings

A former library manager and storyteller, I have wanted to write for magazines since I was six years old, when I used to make my own out of foolscap paper and sellotape and distribute them to my family. Since getting my MSc in Publishing, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and content creator for both digital and print, writing on subjects such as fashion, food, tourism, photography – and the history of Roman toilets. Now I can be found working on The Analytical Scientist, finding the ‘human angle’ to cutting-edge science stories.

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