Surgical Scalpel Sniffs Out Tumors While It Cuts

A chemical sniffer combined with a scalpel is slated to begin human clinical trials next month

Scalpels of Yore

These are your daddy's scalpels

Transforming surgical scalpels into imaging tools could provide instant feedback on suspicious tumors or tissues. European researchers plan for the new imaging tools to enter clinical trials next month.

The concept combines an elecroscalpel with a mass spectrometer to profile the molecular structures of whatever the scalpel happens to cut. It carries out its molecular analysis by using "surgical smoke," or gaseous ions produced as a waste product of the electroscalpels, which requires removal anyway during surgery.

"We want to provide a tool that's right in their hands, so that if they think a structure looks suspicious, they can just test it," said Zoltan Takats, a biomedical researcher at Justus-Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, in an interview with Technology Review.

Surgical smoke fumes get sucked into the mass spectrometer, where chemicals are checked against a database within a few hundred milliseconds. The analysis gives surgeons real-time info on whether tissue might be cancerous, and even provides an image of the tumor. Results can also form a map showing the healthy versus unhealthy tissues in an organ.

German researchers have already tested the device on rodents with cancer, and also provided the tool to veterinarians working on tumor-removal in dogs. The device is slated for human clinical trials next month, and should add yet another high-tech weapon to the surgeons' arsenal if it passes muster.