Science Bites seeks to compile the latest scientific research updates in bite-sized forms.

1. MasSpec Pen to identify cancerous tissue mid-surgery

Scientists at the University of Texas have developed a pen-like tool that can recognise cancer in merely 10 seconds. This could lead to quicker, safer and more precise excision of tumours during surgery, remarked researcher Dr James Suliburk. Potentially, this new innovation could avoid the problem of leaving any cancerous tissue behind during removal.

To utilise it, the MasSpec Pen is to be touched onto a suspected cancer and will release a tiny droplet of water. Cancerous cells release chemicals that migrate into the water droplet and, consequently, it is sucked back up into the pen for further analysis.

The pen is plugged into a mass spectrometer (a kit to measure the mass of thousands of chemicals every second) and displays a chemical fingerprint – indicating healthy or cancerous cells. Locating the border between cancer and healthy tissue serves as a challenge – therefore, this tool aims to appropriately assess excisional borders to ensure cancer cells are removed.

So far, 253 samples have trialled this tool and results suggest accuracy of up to 96%. Researchers plan to carry out refinement and further testing before trialling it in surgeries next year. Currently, the tool analyses a patch of tissue 1.5mm (0.06in) across – but, these scientists have already created better pens that can look at a patch of tissue just 0.6mm across.

The pen itself is inexpensive, though the mass spectrometer is pricey and large. “The roadblock is the mass spectrometer, for sure. We're visioning a mass spectrometer that's a little smaller, cheaper and tailored for this application that can be wheeled in and out of rooms,” said Dr Livia Eberlin Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas.

2. Drawing test to diagnose early signs of Parkinson’s disease

Australian experts have studied a software that assesses writing speed and pen pressure on a page. The test – which involves drawing a spiral on a sheet of paper – could be used to detect early signs of Parkinson’s disease. As this debilitating condition causes shaking and muscle rigidity, analysing these components could be useful.

Individuals are required to draw out a spiral on a tablet and the computer software attached analyses components of the sketch. Photo credit: RMIT University/BBC
Individuals are required to draw out a spiral on a tablet and the computer software attached analyses components of the sketch. Photo credit: RMIT University/BBC

The team from Melbourne believes that general practitioners can use this test to screen patients after middle age and monitor treatment.

The study included 55 people – 27 with Parkinson's disease and 28 in the control group. During which, a tablet with special software took measurements during the spiral drawing test. It would then classify those with the disease and, interestingly, its severity. It works on the basis of Parkinson's patients possessing lower values in speed of writing and pen pressure while sketching; especially for those with a more severe form of the condition.

“Our aim was to develop an affordable and automated electronic system for early-stage diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, which could be easily used by a community doctor or nursing staff,” said Poonam Zham, study researcher from RMIT University.

David Dexter, deputy research director at Parkinson’s UK, said the severity of a patient’s condition cannot accurately be measured with current tests. “This new test could provide a more accurate assessment by measuring a wider range of features that may be affected by Parkinson's, such as co-ordination, pressure, speed and cognitive function,” he added.

3. Metric to view early signs of heart disease-indicating inflammation

For the early detection and prevention of heart diseases, researchers have developed a novel method of non-invasively scanning a person's arteries. Prior to this, doctors have been relying on angiograms and CT scans to pick up coronary artery disease in patients by viewing plaque buildup. However, plaque buildup is not the sole indicator of a pending heart ailment.

As researcher Keith Channon, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Oxford University shared, inflammation is the real culprit when it comes to triggering a blockage in an artery that leads to heart attack. “Until now, there's been no way to detect inflammation in the coronary arteries. And this is where our new research findings come in,” he said.

The procedure works by scrutinising changes in the perivascular fat. Scientists explained that this fat becomes more watery and less fat-like when it lies near an inflamed artery. Thus, the team found indicators of inflammation in existing CT scans using a metric called CT fat attenuation index (FAI).

Through this, patients with either stable coronary atherosclerotic plaques, or ruptured plaques, who had recently experienced heart attack can be picked up. Also, changes in perivascular fat over a period can be tracked and possibly prevented with interventions like statins.

“If this is confirmed in larger studies, it will offer an additional option, an additional readout on standard CT angiography,” shared Charalambos Antoniades, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Oxford. MIMS

Read more:
Science Bites: Lung cancer associated with vitamin B intake, Large doses of vitamin C aid in leukaemia treatment
Science Bites: 3D-printed brain tissue to produce neurotransmitters, Epileptic seizures reduced with mathematical modelling strategy
Science Bites: Chronic fatigue syndrome linked to cytokines, New biomarker for earlier detection of pancreatic cancer