Detecting Cancer in Seconds


99th MDG: The backbone of AF spine surgery

“180827-F-JV039-006”  by Andrew D. Sarver is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


The Current State of Affairs

Too often cancer patients undergo surgery, only to find out that not all the cancer was successfully removed. Till now, surgeons have relied on touch and sight to try to figure out a tumor’s boundary. While these surgeons are extremely skilled, human estimation can only be so accurate, and given the stakes, it’s just not enough. In the future, one may wonder why this primitive approach lasted so long.[1]

Dr. Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, leads a team to solve this problem. Eberlin and her team created the MasSpec Pen, a device that detects cancer tissue in seconds, allowing surgeons to ensure complete removal of the cancer in the middle of an operation. Professor Eberlin argues that her technology could “vastly improve the odds that surgeons really do removeeverylast trace of cancer during surgery.”[2]

During cancer surgery, surgeons rely on a technique known as cryosection to distinguish between cancer and normal tissue and tell if all of the cancer was removed. Cryosection, also known as Frozen Section Analysis, involves freezing and cutting watered tissue, staining it and then analyzing it under a light microscope to identify cancerous tissue. It’s a foundational technique in cancer identification, but it has its downsides; it takes hours to complete and isn’t very accurate, suffering a near 10% error in distinguishing cancer versus normal tissue.[3]Moreover, preparing tissue requires at least 30 minutes, and even more time is required for pathologists to eventually analyze the tissue – time patients don’t have during an operation.. As time elapses, the patient’s risk of infection and the chances of anesthesia error increase dramatically.


A mass spectrometer is a device that measures the amount of a certain material present in a sample. It does this by generating multiple charged particles known as ions. [4]The spectrometer then separates the ions by a property called the mass-to-charge ratio, and measures how many of each ion type is present. Using these measurements, scientists can identify what compounds are in the sample; for example, a surgeon can look for the presence of compounds commonly found in cancer cells. MasSpec is a miniaturized mass spectrometer that can do exactly that. The compounds MasSpec looks for are a unique set of metabolites, proteins, and other biomarkers that act as a ‘fingerprints’ since they are commonly produced in cancer cells. MasSpec analyzes those biomarkers instantaneously and yields a probability of the tissue being cancerous. Surgeons can use this information to immediately check whether they have removed all of the cancer or whether they should continue the operation.

Tumor Paint

Equally exciting, Tumor Paint streamlines cancer surgery by allowing cancer cells to become visible to the human eye. In this procedure, a person is treated with an “optical material” that searches the body and binds only to the tumor cells. This material is administered through a vaccination engineered from scorpion venom, and turns the tumor into a fluorescent mass. With Tumor Paint, surgeons can “see cancer cells in real time and high resolution” throughout, allowing them to make precise incisions to remove any tumor.[5]This new technology also allows medical professionals to detect cancer in seconds, hopefully leading to the complete surgical removal of cancer.

MasSpec and Tumor Paint promise to bring greater prospects to cancer patients worldwide and replace the primitive approach surgeons currently use. However, the question remains: can we combine these new technologies in practice to truly detect cancer in seconds? Many uncertainties remain as doctors and scientists tackle this question. Will these technologies pass their clinical trials? Will they display any unforeseen side effects? How soon can they be available to patients? For now, all we have is questions. But what we do know for certain is that the answers could alter cancer surgery as we know it.


  1. (2016, February). Technologies Enhance Tumor Surgery. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from
  2. (2018, March 14). Pen-Like Device That Detects Cancer Takes a Top Prize at South by Southwest. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from
  3. Hiden Analytical (2018, August 14).The Working Principle of a Mass Spectrometer. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from
  4. Blaze Bioscience. (n.d.) Home. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from

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