Scientists at Imperial College London, UK, have designed an ‘intelligent’ knife that can sniff out tumours to improve vital cancer surgery.
The knife has been designed to combat a common but serious problem of leaving small parts of the tumour in the patient, which then has the opportunity to regrow.
Early tests of the device, known as the iKnife, showed it could accurately identify cancerous tissue on the spot.
During surgery, it is common for surgeons to remove surrounding tissue of a tumour and send it for testing while a patient is still in theatre. However, this process is time consuming.
In spite of this, one in five patients with a breast lump removed still need second surgery to further tumour removal. For lung cancer the figure is around one in ten.
The knife was created by scientists at Imperial College London by modifying a surgical knife that uses heat to cut through tissue and is already commonly used by surgeons.
The knife makes it possible for surgeons to analyse the smoke given off when the hot blade burns through tissue by sucking it into a hi-tech ‘nose’ called a mass spectrometer. This can detect very subtle differences between the smoke of cancerous and healthy tissue and provide this information to surgeons within seconds.
Dr Zoltan Takats, who invented the system at Imperial, said: "We believe it has the potential to reduce tumour recurrence rates and enable more patients to survive."
Tests on 91 patients showed it could accurately tell what type of tissue it was severing and if it was cancerous or not.
"These results provide compelling evidence that the iKnife can be applied in a wide range of cancer surgery procedures," Takats added.
"It provides a result almost instantly, allowing surgeons to carry out procedures with a level of accuracy that hasn’t been possible before."
The knife is now in clinical trials at three London hospitals.
UK Health Minister Lord Howe said: "We want to be among the best countries in the world at treating cancer and know that new technologies have the potential to save lives.
"The iKnife could reduce the need for people needing secondary operations for cancer and improve accuracy, and I’m delighted we could support the work of researchers at Imperial College London.
The results of the early trials have been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Image: Scientists hope the iKnife can improve tumour removal. Photo: courtesy of Imperial College London