UT invention identifies cancer in seconds


AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s a pen with the promise of detecting cancer, every bit of it during surgery. A team of scientists at the University of Texas invented a tool that gives precise information about what tissue to keep or get rid of, within seconds.

KXAN sat down with a cancer survivor who wishes she had the peace of mind of knowing without a doubt the cancer is all gone.

“I got a few migraines that year and thought oh I hope I’m not allergic to red wine or coffee, that would be awful,” Christy Butterfield said.

But the reality? Much scarier. A tumor.

“It was like oh wow, this is a big one. But then it was like you know what? I can’t choose to not have this. BRAIN CANCER. And I’m only 32. All I can control is how I respond to it,” she said.

But she thought the surgery would take care of everything. “With my like positive attitude… I’m going to get this surgery and wipe it out!”

It wasn’t that simple.

“The doctor came in afterwards and said hey, we have had a successful surgery, we got 98 percent of your cancer. Gone. I remember people were like oh, that’s wonderful because they heard the successful part,” Butterfield said. “And I was thinking like oh, 98, that’s an A+ but what about that extra two percent?”

Livia Eberlin is an assistant professor of chemistry at UT Austin and led the team. She explained, “The main issue in cancer surgery is removing all the tumor but also sparing normal tissue.”

The team of scientists and engineers created what’s called the MasSpec Pen to pinpoint what tissue is cancerous, especially on the perimeter of a tumor where it can be tougher to tell.

“For a brain cancer patient, you may be impacting quality of life and just function by removing normal tissue that’s very important, right, for their survival,” Eberlin said.

Feedback that used to take 30 minutes, sending tissue to a lab for results, surgeons now have at their fingertips in less than 10 seconds.

“That is amazing and so exciting,” Butterfield said. “Like if they had that back when I was getting surgery, they would have just taken all my cancer out and it would have been like oh yeah, no big deal, I’m done. Like there wouldn’t have been all the chemo and the radiation, all the stuff.”

Check-ins with her doctor that continue more than a decade after her diagnosis.

The team at UT expects to start testing the MasSpec Pen during cancer surgeries next year.

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