This Smart Scalpel Can Smell Cancer as It Cuts

Cancer surgery is invariably difficult, in part, because doctors have always had a hard time determining exactly where the healthy tissue ends and the tumor begins. Not anymore. A new "intelligent knife" can actually sniff out the cancer cells during an operation and keep the doctor on track.

On a basic level, this new scalpel is a pretty simple device. Dr. Zoltan Takats invented the so-called iKnife system at Imperial College London by taking a normal surgical knife that uses heat to cut through flesh and equipping it with a mass spectrometer that's connected to a computer. The knife cutting through the flesh produces smoke that the mass spectrometer sniffs up and sends to the computer, which can tell if it's cutting through cancer cells or healthy cells. The alternative for many doctors is to take a sample and wait for the pathology report to come back.

Doctors aren't being shy about the implications of such a powerful new tool in the operating room. "It provides a result almost instantly, allowing surgeons to carry out procedures with a level of accuracy that hasn't been possible before," Takats explained to the BBC in a recent interview. "We believe it has the potential to reduce tumor recurrence rates and enable more patients to survive." Nimmi Ramanujam who's involved in similar research at Duke University says that the iKnife is "cool" because it uses "a byproduct of surgery."

Indeed the iKnife is already hard at work. It's been used in 81 cancer surgeries so far, and as soon as clinical trials are done, the inventors hope to send it to operating rooms around the world. And they can't get to that stage soon enough. As Takats said, this thing will save lives. [Science]

Image via AP