Cancer often requires surgical intervention to remove the affected tissue, and it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what is healthy tissue and what is cancerous during an operation. Currently, detecting cancer during surgery involves a method called frozen section analysis, which requires that a tissue sample be removed from a patient and examined under a microscope. This can take up to 30 minutes, during which time the patient is exposed to risk of infection and negative effects of anesthesia. But a group of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed an alternative method in the form of a 3D printed pen.
“What we developed is a handheld device that by touching the tissue, extracts molecules that are characteristic of normal or cancerous tissue,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Livia Eberlin. “Then we analyze these molecules using a high-performance mass spectrometer and, using machine learning and software tools, provide a predictive diagnosis to the surgeon in less than 10 seconds.”
Frozen section analysis isn’t always 100% accurate, either; in fact, for some types of cancers, it produces unreliable results in 10% to 20% of cases. The 3D printed MacSpec Pen, as it’s being called, was accurate in 96.5% of cases in tests on more than 250 human cancer samples. It can detect cancer of the breast, thyroid, lungs, ovaries and brain so far, and the research team hopes to expand its capabilities to include all solid tumors. The pen is currently awaiting clinical trials, which are projected to start in the next two months, and the team has a lot of hope that it can reduce the chances of cancer recurrence.
The MacSpec Pen won an SXSW Interactive Innovation Award recently. Whether it’s adopted on a widespread scale will depend on FDA approval, as well as cost – the pen itself is cheap and disposable, but the mass spectrometer is a bigger upfront investment.
The research is published in a paper entitled “Nondestructive tissue analysis for ex vivo and in vivo cancer diagnosis using a handheld mass spectrometry system,” which you can access here.
Another 3D printed device is helping to diagnose stomach conditions.
Gastrointestinal problems such as delayed emptying of the stomach are common in patients with conditions like diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, and the device developed by researchers at the University of California San Diego, the University of California Berkeley and Rady Children’s Hospital and is designed to track such issues by monitoring electrical activity in the stomach over 24 hours. The 3D printed box is connected to 10 wearable electrodes which attach to a patient’s stomach, and allows gastrointestinal activity to be monitored outside of a clinical setting, cutting down on costs and increasing the likelihood of capturing abnormal events.
The device was tested on 11 children and one adult, and the data collected was comparable to the more invasive methods used in a clinical setting. Additional findings were gathered, as well, such as the fact that the stomach’s electrical activity changes not only around mealtime but during sleep.
“We think our system will spark a new kind of medicine, where a gastroenterologist can quickly see where and when a part of the GI tract is showing abnormal rhythms and as a result make more accurate, faster and personalized diagnoses,” said Armen Gharibans, bioengineering postdoctoral researcher at UC San Diego.
“This work opens the door accurately monitoring the dynamic activity of the GI system,” added Professor of Bioengineering Todd Coleman. “Until now, it was quite challenging to accurately measure the electrical patterns of stomach activity in a continuous manner, outside of a clinical setting. From now on, we will be able to observe patterns and analyze them in both healthy and unwell people as they go about their daily lives.”
The biggest challenge was to design algorithms that recognize and boost the stomach’s electrical signals among other noise, which is difficult because the stomach’s electrical signals are 10 times weaker than the heart’s. The researchers were able to develop algorithms that separated these signals from other things like abdominal muscle activity and heartbeats. The device is made from off-the-shelf electronics used in electrocardiagrams; the electronics and battery are then encased in a 3D printed box and attached to the patient’s abdomen using electrodes.
The researchers worked with Dr. Hayat Mousa to test the device on 11 pediatric patients at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. These patients had been undergoing a process called manometry, which involves inserting a catheter through the nose to measure pressure at various points in the stomach. The testing showed that the less invasive monitoring with the 3D printed box produced results that were just as reliable.
“I have been practicing pediatric gastroenterology and taking care of patients for 20 years. The only method to assess gastrointestinal motility involves placing motility catheters in the GI tracts while kids are sedated or under general anesthesia,” said Dr. Mousa. “It has been a long journey discussing the benefits of doing such an invasive procedure with my patients and their families. My challenge has always been finding a test that offers a non-invasive assessment of the enteric nervous system and its connection with brain function.
“The technique outlined in this paper is the best way to evaluate children with motility and functional GI disorders. It provides the information without need for sedation and it offers the flexibility to monitor kids while they continue their daily activities. This procedure allows convenience without compromising accuracy. In addition, it offers the option to assess the brain-gut response to therapeutic interventions including biofeedback and neuromodulation.”
The device is paired with a smartphone app that allows patients to log their meals, sleep and other activities. Healthy people can benefit from the device as well, such as athletes trying to figure out the best time for meals and pregnant women suffering from heartburn.
“Changes to digestion and gastric health are hallmarks of two understudied processes: aging and pregnancy,” said Benjamin Smarr, a chronobiologist at UC Berkeley. “One of our hopes is that this technology will allow us to quantify the changes that happen during these critical periods in life. They affect the vast majority of humanity, and will now be possible to study what’s going on, and build predictive, personal medical applications based on getting ahead of bad changes.”
The research was published in an article entitled “Artifact Rejection Methodology Enables Continuous, Noninvasive Measurement of Gastric Myoelectric Activity in Ambulatory Subjects,” which you can access here. You can also learn more here.
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