Knife that 'smells' cancer'

PHOTO: Knife that 'smells' cancer'

SINGAPORE/LONDON - With a nifty new device called the iKnife, surgeons can save time and be more accurate during operations to remove cancerous tumours.

The eureka moment came when researchers at Imperial College London realised they could make use of the rich biological information in the smoke produced during electrosurgery.

During electrosurgery, an electric current is applied through a conventional scalpel to remove cancerous tissues. As the flesh burns, smoke full of hazardous materials is released.

The smoke used to be ignored, but researchers fed it into a mass spectrometer - an instrument that measures the masses and relative concentrations of atoms and molecules - and found that it could determine whether the tissue being operated on is cancerous.

The iKnife was born. And it will help surgeons differentiate between malignant tumours and healthy tissue.

When it is ready for commercial use, surgeons would no longer have to pause during an operation to send removed tissue to a pathology lab for analysis (this can take up to half an hour) while their patients remain anaesthetised.

Surgeons would have the information on the spot to decide if a tissue is to be removed or not.

In tests, the iKnife has proven incredibly accurate so far, distinguishing tissue samples from 91 patients with 100 per cent accuracy.

While surgery is often the best hope in the fight against cancer, more than 20 per cent of the cancerous tissue may be left behind under current procedures.

"This could be a real game-changer for tumour resection surgery," the iKnife's inventor, Imperial College London's Dr Zoltan Takats, told The Independent.

He added that the iKnife could also have applications in the realm of robotic- assisted surgery.

He also sees the application of iKnife in areas such as food analysis, veterinary applications and bacteria identification.

Reuters reported that the iKnife costs £200,000 (S$389,000) to make, but the price would drop significantly if the device were to be produced commercially.

More trials needed

For now, more clinical trials are needed and it would take two to three years before the iKnife can be used in operating theatres.

Trials are now taking place at three hospitals in London - St Mary's, Hammersmith and Charing Cross.

Professor Jeremy Nicholson, head of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London, told the BBC: "This is part of what we call precision medicine, we're trying to change the world by very aggressively translating scientific discovery to the NHS (National Health Service)."


1 During the operation, a surgeon places the modified electrosurgical knife near the tumour.

2 The incision causes the tissue to burn, emitting smoke which is sucked into the 'chimney' section of the scalpel and fed into the mass spectrometer. The device then analyses the make-up of the tissue.

3 Within three seconds, the result would be displayed on a monitor. A red circle means the tissue is malignant, while green indicates it is healthy. The surgeon can then decide which tissue to keep or remove.

Get The New Paper for more stories.