A research team at the University of Lille in France has developed a device they call the SpiderMass, which could enable surgeons to look for markers of cancer in a patient’s tissue during an operation.

SpiderMass could help surgeons to find stray cancer cells faster, potentially as they make incisions, and would negate the need for lengthy pathologist examinations and a longer time for the patient under anaesthetic.

INSERM co-director and professor at the University of Lille Isabelle Fournier said: “Better surgery is associated with better prognosis and higher survival.”

Fournier’s laboratory has worked for several years on SpiderMass and the team believe the device is an important step toward finding protein biomarkers during surgery.

With the new device, Fournier said: “We think that it is possible to open the way to in vivo real-time proteomics.”

The device uses mass spectrometry, which measures the mass of molecules from complex mixtures. However, the researchers had to tackle the problem of turning an in vivo tissue sample into gas phase ions for measurements without causing harm to the patient.

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To do this, the team built upon MALDI, an ionisation strategy that uses a carrier molecule mixed with the analyte of interest. The researchers found they could use the water in a patient’s tissue as a carrier to produce a water-assisted laser desorption/ionisation. The water can then be vaporised, without causing damage, and takes ionised organic molecules with it.

Fournier added: “It was an idea at the beginning, and many people thought that it would not work. Finally, we have it working beautifully.”

The device has already been tested on animals in a collaborative project with the veterinary biotech company Oncovet Clinical Research. A trial study was conducted to compare biopsies from pet dogs with sarcoma to healthy tissues. A prototype that can be used during veterinary operations is currently in development and Fournier hopes that the device will soon be used in human clinics.

A video explaining the SpiderMass can be found here: https://vimeo.com/199630696