Monday, October 12, 2009

Detecting cancer during surgery in real time

This is cool. Researchers at Justus-Liebig University in Germany have developed a way to detect cancerous cells during surgery, by using a combination of mass spectrometry and an electroscalpel. Mass spectrometry is already used to distinguish between healthy and cancerous tissue, but samples have to be ionized before analysis by way of a high-voltage nitrogen jet -- a procedure that would most certainly not sit well with the patient...

However, the researchers found that the "surgical smoke" emitted by the electroscalpel can be collected and used as a sample for mass spectrometry. Analyzing the samples takes only a fraction of a second. By taking multiple samples within the surgical area, doctors could map out the healthy parts and unhealthy parts, which could make tumor removal more effective and reduce the number of subsequent surgeries.

The technique has already been tested in animals, and human clinical trials will begin soon. The only drawback is that a commercial mass spectrometer is very expensive (6 digits!), but the researchers believe that the cost could be reduced to about $20,000 with lower-performance mass spectrometers, which should work fine for this purpose.


  1. I saw this too, and was also interested... mass spec is miniaturizing and coming down in price all the time. It probably won't be long until we have them in our cell phones!

  2. Well, there are already cell phones that can monitor a person's vitals and health: Popular Science