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UT surgical pen detects cancerous tissue, featured on 'Grey's Anatomy'

The pen is expected to be used in oncologic surgeries by later this year.

University of Texas scientists developed a surgical pen that is able to detect cancerous molecules on patients during operations.

The MasSpec pen delivers results to surgeons in about 10 seconds. It is a handheld, disposable tool, and it's about 150 times faster than existing technology for detecting cancerous tissue.

The development team is led by chemistry professor Livia Eberlin in the labs of UT.


UT surgical pen that detects cancerous tissue wins award at SXSW

"The idea of the MasSpec pen really started from the clinical need,” said Eberlin. “There's this critical issue in surgery which is establishing the margin, so how much of the tumor really needs to be removed? And how much is left in the patient?"

This is how it works: a foot pedal pumps a drop of water from the pen. The water comes in contact with tissue, and molecules are extracted. It is drawn to the mass spectrometer machine. From there, it connects to researcher's computers and they are shown whether it is cancerous.

"We hope to provide a tool to the surgeons that can help them remove all the cancer in the first surgery,” said Eberlin. “And that way, our goal is really to decrease the number of second surgeries.”

The tool is in the process of getting patented. For now, it is being featured on "Grey's Anatomy."

ABC could not share how exactly the pen will be used because they do not want to risk any spoilers, but Thursday night’s show focuses on a competition among the doctors.

For MasSpec pen creator Livia Eberlin, it is more than recognition, it is about saving people's lives.

“The perspective of using it in clinic is soon, it's real,” she said.

Eberlin said her team expects the pen to be used in oncologic surgeries by later this year.

Eberlin and her team recently won a SXSW Interactive Innovation Award in the Health, Med and Biotech category for the MasSpec pen and beat out competitors from Georgia, Virginia, California and Austin.

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