Cutting Edge

Fact: The iKnife can detect cancer instantly during surgery.

Cancer isn’t much fun, but modern medicine is helping us win the fight. Treatments are getting ever more sophisticated, but sometimes the best bet for curing cancer is good old fashioned surgery to just cut out the tumour.

However, cancer is made up of your own cells, so from the outside it can be really tricky to tell where the tumour ends and the healthy cells begin. On top of that, the more cancer cells that are left in the body after surgery the greater the risk that the cancer will return. This means surgeons often end up giving the tumour a wide berth to make sure they get it all, doing a lot of damage to healthy tissue in the process.

The iKnife could spell the end of this guesswork. Its an electronic scalpel that uses an electric current to vaporise tissue, allowing the surgeon to cut and seal the wound at the same time. This isn’t a new technique: electrosurgery was developed in the 1920’s as a way of minimising blood loss.

But vaporising tissue produces ‘smoke’. This is where the iKnife earns its title of ‘intelligent’. While cancer cells look the same as healthy cells from the outside, on the inside their metabolism has changed. This means they contain abnormal concentrations of various chemicals. The ‘smoke’ produced from burning cancer cells is therefore slightly different from the smoke produced when burning normal cells.

Where this smoke is usually sucked away by an extractor fan, the iKnife pipes it into a machine called a mass spectrometer. This machine works out exactly which compounds are present in this smoke and at what concentrations, and from this information guesses whether the tissue the surgeon is cutting is cancerous or healthy. In its first trials the iKnife’s guesses were right an impressive 91% of the time.

While still in the early stages, this technology could provide real-time feedback to surgeons to help them make cancer surgery safer and more effective. If Apple don’t decide to sue, that.

‘Another one of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science’
Image under creative commons license.

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