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New probe could detect cancer before patient leaves operating table

Research from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (TN, USA) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School (MA, USA) could provide surgeons with a means of determining if tissue is cancerous while their patients are still on the operating table.

The researchers have developed an automated droplet-based surface sampling probe, which they demonstrated could rapidly profile two hormones from human pituitary tissue. The novel method provided results in 10 minutes, a process that currently takes between 20–30 minutes. The researchers predict that they will be able further reduce this to 4 or 5 minutes.

Vilmos Kertesz (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), who led the study, explained: “Instead of having to cut and mount tissue and wait for a trained pathologist to review the sample under a microscope, a technician might soon perform an equally conclusive test in the operating environment.”

The new technique is based on mass spectrometry, and could be a suitable alternative to the traditionally used method, immunohistochemistry. While immunohistochemistry provides a high degree of spatial recognition, it is limited by the specificity and quality of antibody employed to detect the biomarker protein. It is also a time-consuming process.

Other mass spectrometry techniques are currently being evaluated for their potential to provide prognostic information or classify tumors, but the vast majorities are limited in their analysis to low weight biomolecules such as metabolites and lipids. The technique developed by Kertesz’ team, however, is capable of quickly characterizing the tissue distribution of larger biomarkers, such as proteins.

Kertesz described how the team’s technique has been successfully utilized to detect drugs and metabolites from thin samples of animal tissue, and proteins from dried blood. “On the basis of the results and the relative simplicity, rapidity and specificity of our method, there is great potential for our technology to assist surgeons in the detection of cancer from tissue biopsy samples,” concluded Kertesz.

Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory press release