Cancer Pen Samples Cells Before Surgery


HOUSTON, Texas (Ivanhoe Newswire) —It’s called the ‘cancer pen’ and is used to help diagnose cancerous tumors. When this tiny device is held next to human tissue, it detects whether it is cancerous or benign. What does this tiny device mean for those on the front lines of battling cancer?

Francis Manzo is an active, former Houston policeman, but recently, life stood still when doctors suspected a simple black spot on his neck might be thyroid cancer and suggested surgery.

Manzo recalled, “He left the decision to us and along with my family, we decided that it was probably the safer route, to go ahead have it removed, that spot removed.”

James Suliburk, MD, chief of endocrine surgery at Baylor College of Medicine explained to Ivanhoe, “His biopsy of the nodule showed an indeterminate biopsy, which then meant that he had to have surgery, to obtain a diagnosis.”

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“Had I had the opportunity to have it checked and discovered that it was benign, and not half of my gland removed, I would’ve been definitely in favor of that”, Manzo shared.

“And this is where our cancer pen comes into play. We’re hoping that we increase the diagnostic accuracy of these thyroid biopsies that are obtained,” Dr. Suliburk clarified.

Here’s how the cancer pen works: during the OR biopsy, the pen releases a drop of water onto the tissue. Small molecules migrate into that water, leaving a footprint, which are analyzed by computer.

“During the surgery, we will use the cancer pen, or the MasSpec pen, to sample the cells of the thyroid that we’re going to take out as part of their normal clinical treatments,” Dr. Suliburk told Ivanhoe.

“Currently, around 20 percent of patients who undergo a biopsy of the thyroid will have an indeterminate result. We want to bring that number down to less than five percent,” Dr. Suliburk stated.

A small device poised to make a big impact.

The cancer pen is meant to keep patients out of the operating room, by diagnosing before cutting. Researchers say it could be a valuable tool for detecting not only thyroid but several other types of cancer. It is still in the pre-clinical research phase and that puts it about one or two years away from full clinical use, according to Dr. Suliburk.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Executive Producer; Donna Parker, Field Producer; Bruce Maniscalo, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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REPORT:        MB #4739

TESTING: There are 56,000 new cases of thyroid cancer in the US each year. When it comes to diagnosing thyroid cancer there are a lot of tests that people can take. There is a physical exam where a doctor examines the neck to feel for physical changes in the thyroid nodules. Blood tests may determine if the gland is working normally. Doctors also may remove a sample of the thyroid by using a fine needle aspiration biopsy. Ultrasound imaging is used to guide the needle through the nodule.  Doctors send the section that is resected to a laboratory to look for any cancerous cells. Over 95 percent of the nodules taken out are benign. Doctors may also just use an ultrasound to look at the lower neck. This can be used to show if the nodule is likely to be benign or more cancerous.


TREATMENT: Surgery is the traditional treatment for thyroid cancer. Doctors also have the option of removing the cancer through the lip to avoid scarring.  An ultrasound can be used as well to see if the lymph nodes also need to be removed. If the cancer is medullary, the lymph nodes are removed. Up to a week and a half after the thyroid has been removed, patients can have radioactive iodine therapy, which consists of taking a pill in a dose that is calculated specifically for each patient.


NEW PROCEDURE: The cancer pen, or MasSpec Pen, is a way for cancer surgeons to not only determine if a cancer is benign or cancerous but also where the tumor begins and ends. It was first presented at the American Chemical Society Fall 2019 National Meeting & Exposition. Principal Investigator Livia Eberline, Ph.D, from University of Texas at Austin, says the impetus for the creation of the device was to provide molecular information in the operating room. The device takes a small droplet of water on the tissue surface for about three seconds. That is then transferred to the mass spectrometer where molecules are identified. The device has also been tested on breast, brain and pancreatic cancer.






If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at

Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for James Suliburk, MD, chief of endocrine surgery

Read the entire Q&A