New tool may help surgeons ‘see’ invisible cancer: System can even detect and sample drugs from thin sections of animal tissue and paroteins from dried blood.

New surgical tools developed by scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory based in Tennessee and Harvard Medical School could help surgeons determine whether their patients have cancerous tissue when they are still on the operating table.

The tool is an automatic droplet based surface sampling probe that can analyze in 10 minutes what usually would take a 20-30 minutes of analysis in a lab.

“Instead of cutting and mounting a tissue and then having a trained pathologist review the sample under a microscope, a technician may soon be able to perform an equally conclusive test in the operating environment,” research team leader Vilmos Kertesz explained.

To prove the concept in working, a demonstration was given in which researchers did rapid profiling of two hormones from human pituitary tissue.

Traditionally Immunohistochemistry or IHC is used, in which a specific protein biomarker is identified for a diagnosis. But IHC is not only limited by the quality and the specific antibody used to look for a protein, it is also time-consuming.

The new mass spectrometry based technology is available in ORNL laboratories along with the required software. Mass spectrometry is an analytical chemistry technique in which the type and amount of chemicals present in a sample are measured.

Other techniques based on mass spectrometry are also being evaluated for classification of tumors but they can only analyze biological molecules that have low molecular weight such as fatty acids and lipids.

But the new droplet based method developed by the ORNL team is not limited in the same way. It can characterize the distribution of large weight biomarker molecules such as proteins and peptides.

This enables diagnosis on the basis of immunohistochemistry that would help in decision-making during surgical procedures. The system can even detect and sample drugs from thin sections of animal tissue and proteins from dried blood.

The paper based on the tool sampling the two hormones included as authors, Kertesz and had another ORNL researcher Gary Van Berkel. The paper was published in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry.

“On the basis of the results and the relative, rapidity, simplicity and specificity of our method, there is great potential for our technology to assist surgeons in the detection of cancer from tissue biopsy samples,” Kertesz concluded.