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Pen-Like Device That Detects Cancer Takes a Top Prize at South by Southwest

UT professor and team were honored with an award at SXSW for cancer detecting pen. 

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A University of Texas at Austin professor and her team were honored with a prestigious SXSW Interactive Innovation Award for the MasSpec Pen, a device that will allow surgeons to identify cancerous tissue in seconds.

“This is special for our team because South by Southwest is an Austin event, and the MasSpec Pen is something that we developed in Austin,” said Livia S. Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry who led the team that created the MasSpec Pen.

Eberlin and her team won in the Health, Med, and Biotech category, beating out competitors from Georgia, Virginia, California and Austin.

The MasSpec Pen is a handheld instrument that gives surgeons precise diagnostic information about what tissue to cut or preserve during cancer surgery. Currently awaiting clinical trials in humans, it is projected to improve treatment and reduce the chances of cancer recurrence.

It works like this: A surgeon gently touches the tip of the pen to the tissue during surgery. Within the tip, a tiny drop of water is exposed to the tissue. All living cells, healthy or cancerous, produce small molecules called metabolites. Each type of cancer produces specific metabolites that act like a fingerprint. The water droplet at the end of the pen captures these metabolites and pulls the molecules up through a tube to a mass spectrometer that can analyze the molecules and return results in about 10 seconds. The current state-of-the-art method for diagnosing cancers and determining the boundary between cancer and normal tissue during surgery is pathologic evaluation, a process that can be subjective and takes closer to 30 minutes for completion.

Eberlin and her team say the new innovation would expedite cancer surgery and thus reduce risk to cancer patients of infection and negative effects of anesthesia. And because for some types of cancers, the pathology evaluation yields unreliable results in as many as 10 to 20 percent of cases, the MasSpec Pen is also needed to ensure effectiveness: In tests on human cancer tissue, the MasSpec Pen was accurate in 96 percent of cases.

Eberlin and her team are currently preparing for testing in clinics at Dell Medical School, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine. Other scientists representing the MasSpec Pen team at SXSW are Jialing Zhang, Marta Sans, Noah Giese, Aydin Zahedivash, and Nitesh Katta.

The MasSpec Pen beat out several other pieces of technology to win the award including an exoskeleton vest for construction workers that reduces fatigue and injury, an augmented reality physical therapy device and an Austin-based project to use music to help people walk again.

“We’re thankful that the judges and the public are excited about this technology,” Eberlin said. “The MasSpec Pen could have a huge impact on how we treat cancer and cancer patients. We believe it has what it takes to become a medical device that will improve patient care and human health.”