How Cancer Can Be Diagnosed Instantly with a Smart Scalpel

Amy GrayIf you’re a cancer patient who has been told you need to “go under the knife,” here’s some helpful news.

Cancer surgery is often prescribed to diagnose a particular tumor or remove it if it’s found malignant. But often cancer surgery is exploratory and the diagnosis of a tumor found in the course of surgery can take a half an hour or more. This all goes on while you are under general anesthesia, which is not easy on the body.

Additionally, if a diagnosis is made during surgery and the tumor is removed, there is a chance that not all of the tumor is found during the initial surgery.   For example, 20% of breast cancer patients undergoing lumpectomies must return to the surgery table at a later date because the surgeons weren’t able to find the clear margin of the tumor.

All this time spent in surgery and under anesthesia can add stress to an already stressful situation.

To address both these situations – that is, quick diagnosis of tumors and thorough removal of the tumor during surgery – the iKnife presents a high tech option.

The iKnife was introduced as a surgical tool in 2013. Dr. Zoltan Takats, of Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, noticed then when the iKnife cut into the body, a stream of smoke was released as the incisions in the tissues were cauterized to prevent further bleeding. He had the idea of pairing the iKnife with a technique called rapid evaporative ionization mass spectrometry (REIMS). REIMs measures the way light is refracted by the chemical output in the smoke. In other words, each cells, cancer or otherwise, has a unique “smoke signal.” This smoke can be quickly matched to a database of over 3000 different cancer cells. The result: cancer diagnosis can be made on the spot during surgery, within 1 -3 seconds.

The iKnife is also helping in determine the margins of the tumor as the surgery is happening. Using the same smoke signals, the surgeon can detect with amazing precision when he or she is cutting into healthy tissue and thereby determine a clear margin of the tumor.

Dr. Katas tested the iKnife diagnosis technique with 81 of his surgery patients. He found a 100% correlation between the traditional slower lab results with the instantaneous iKnife analysis.

The iKnife is already in use at Imperial College in London. Clinical trials are underway using the iKnife in breast, colon, and ovarian surgeries.