Women's Health

Can a Pen Be the Next Big Diagnostic Tool for Breast Cancer?

Can a Pen Be the Next Big Diagnostic Tool for Breast Cancer?

Researchers have been developing a pen that can be used as a biopsy tool and surgical tool to help surgeons determine which cells in the patient's body are cancerous. Anyone who has ever undergone surgery to remove a tumor knows how stressful it can be.

Worries about whether or not that removed all of the tumor or not are prevalent among both patients and surgeons; no surgeon wants to leave cancer cells behind. Imagine being a surgeon and finding out the patient’s cancer came back because not all of the tumor cells were removed.

Now, imagine being a patient whose cancer relapsed, and being told you need to go back under the knife--the only one who wins is the cancer.


The pen is able to detect cancer cells in as little as 10 seconds using a small water droplet and mass spectrometry analysis. When the pen is placed softly on tissue for 3 seconds, the water droplet is transported up into a mass spectrometer, “which characterizes diagnostic proteins, lipids, and metabolites”. The pen’s size is comparable to that of a regular writing pen, and is handheld in the same manner. It is easy to use and up to 96% effective in determining whether a patient's tissue is healthy or cancerous.

The pen was tested on a variety of different types of brain, lung, breast, ovary, and thyroid cancers and was able to identify different cancer subtypes as well. As research continues, they hope to hone in the pen’s identification abilities so it can accurately identify even more specific features of the cancer cells. Perhaps one of the best parts about the pen is that it can do all this without damaging healthy tissue.

Oftentimes, healthy tissue is removed in large quantities if it’s difficult to determine where the cancer begins and ends. In order to avoid leaving the cells behind, surgeons will remove beyond where they believe the healthy tissue begins just to be “safe”. This is understandable, but is not necessary with the use of the pen. For cancer that is present in multiple areas or “honeycombed” throughout the tissue, this pen will help surgeons identify each area that’s cancerous. In the case of breast tissue, it can be difficult to remove all the cancerous tissue using regular removal techniques due to the number of glands, tissue types, and fat. It’s easy for the cancer to hide and spread.

The development of this pen could prove to be the end of that dilemma.


The research involved in the development of this pen was intricate and taxing. The different types of cancer that were tested are breast, lung, thyroid and ovarian, while research is still being conducted on brain and pancreatic cancers. Each cancer underwent several different forms of testing with a variety of different patients, giving researchers a ballpark average of the “sensitivity” of the testing. In the research, you will see the terms “sensitivity”, “accuracy,” and “specificity.” According to the Mac Spec Pen website, “Sensitivity is defined as the percentage of correctly identified cancerous samples. Specificity is defined as the percentage of correctly identified normal samples. Accuracy is defined as the average of sensitivity and specificity.”

Read on to learn more about this pen and how it could benefit breast cancer outcomes.

Photo: University of Texas at Austin