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New tool on horizon for surgeons treating cancer patients

19 June 2015

Surgeons could know, while their patients are still on the operating table, if a tissue is cancerous, thanks to work by US researchers.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's new droplet-based surface sampling probe speeds the process of analysing a liver biopsy sample (photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

A team from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Brigham and Women's Hospital/Harvard Medical School, led by ORNL's Vilmos Kertesz has created an automated droplet-based surface sampling probe that accomplishes in about ten minutes what now routinely takes 20 to 30 minutes. Kertesz expects that time to be cut to four to five minutes soon. Their work is described in the journal, Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry.

For this proof-of-concept demonstration, researchers rapidly profiled two hormones from human pituitary tissue. "Instead of having to cut and mount tissue and wait for a trained pathologist to review the sample under a microscope, a technician might soon perform an equally conclusive test in the operating environment," says Kertesz.

The new mass spectrometry-based technology provides an attractive alternative to the traditional method called immunohistochemistry (IHC) which looks for specific protein biomarkers to make a diagnosis. Although the IHC approach provides a high degree of spatial recognition, it is time consuming and limited by the quality and specificity of the antibody used to detect the protein.

The work advances the liquid micro-junction surface sampling probe technology first patented by ORNL.

While yet other mass spectrometry-based techniques such as desorption electrospray ionization and rapid evaporative ionization mass spectrometry are being evaluated for classifying tumours and providing prognostic information, they are limited mainly to the analysis of lower molecular weight biomolecules. These include metabolites, fatty acids and lipids. The new droplet-based method developed at ORNL does not share this limitation.

"The ability to quickly characterize the tissue distribution of larger macromolecular biomarkers like peptides and proteins would harness the diagnostic value of validated immunohistochemistry approaches for surgical decision-making," says Kertesz. "On the basis of the results and the relative simplicity, rapidity and specificity of our method, there is great potential for our technology to assist surgeons in the detection of cancer from tissue biopsy samples."

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