Superpen: A Potential Breakthrough for Cancer

The device is about 5 inches long. It fits comfortably in a hand, and seems like something you could toss in a backpack or a purse; it’s a very familiar device, one that we use and see every day. And it has the capability to change the world. This miracle device is a pen, and it can detect cancer within 10 short seconds. Such an innovation can not only change lives; it could possibly revolutionize the entire field of oncology and provide patients and doctors with a dependable, inexpensive cancer detection method that is over 96% accurate.

A handheld device that can identify cancerous tissue in 10 seconds (University of Texas)
A handheld device that can identify cancerous tissue in 10 seconds (University of Texas)

So how is this device different from previous cancer detection technology? The way it works is simple. The pen is touched to the suspected cancer and then releases a tiny droplet of water. Chemicals inside the living cells then move into the droplet, which is sucked into the pen for more analysis. The pen, which now contains the living cells and droplet of water, is plugged into a mass spectrometer – a device that can measure the mass of thousands of chemicals every second. This produces a chemical fingerprint that tells doctors whether they are looking at a healthy or cancerous tissue.

However, the pen is not perfect – the biggest challenge in using this device is that people must  differentiate between cancerous and healthy tissue in order to determine where to apply the pen. In some cases the difference is obvious, but is others the boundary between healthy and diseased tissue can be blurred.  This is a difficult process, for if one removes too little tissue, any remaining cancerous cells will grow into another tumor. On the other hand, if one removes too much tissue, it can cause a lot of damage, particularly in organs such as the brain.

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Despite the challenges, however, there is no question that this pen is revolutionary for cancer technology.

“What’s exciting about this technology is how clearly it meets a clinical need. The tool is elegant and simple and can be in the hands of surgeons in a short time,” said Livia Eberlin, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin.

Dr. Aine McCarthy, from Cancer Research UK, who also helped to design the pen agrees with Eberlin.

“Exciting research like this has the potential to speed up how quickly doctors can determine if a tumour is cancerous or not and learn about its characteristics.” McCarthy said.

The pen has already been tested on 253 samples as part of the study. Scientists at the University of Texas plan to keep refine the device during the next year. Although the pen itself is cheap, but the mass spectrometer that is used is quite expensive. This means that it will be used more in hospitals than for individual use.

The most important aspect of this innovation is how much safer and convenient it is compared to current detection methods. Biology teacher Pooya Hajjarian explains that it is important that this technology is available to everyone.

I worry about something like that coming out and then gaining a full reputation and people just not giving it the credit it deserves or not wanting to try it,” Hajjarian said. “I hope that [this new device] can become available in every hospital and accessible to all patients.”

Despite having the potential of being an amazing, convenient, and inexpensive assay for cancer, the device has its downfalls. Although in itself it is not expensive to produce, the mass spectrometer that is necessary for the test to function is unwieldy and pricey. It is also an intrusive test, although not very harmful. The full range of pros and cons of such a technology will become more apparent during clinical testing, where researchers will be able to conclusively decide if this is a viable and superior alternative to current cancer detection methods.

“I hope that if it’s something that’s going to come out and be used by doctors, that it’s as accurate as it can be,” Mr. Hajjarian said. “Otherwise, it defeats the purpose.”