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Smart Knife Detects Cancer in Seconds

A smart surgical knife can sniff out cancer almost instantly in the smoke of vaporized flesh

2 min read
Smart Knife Detects Cancer in Seconds

A new smart knife puts the pathology lab in surgeons' hands by sniffing out cancer cells as it cuts flesh. The  so-called intelligent knife, also known as "iKnife," could allow surgeons to work more swiftly and efficiently to remove cancerous tumors without leaving behind traces of cancer cells.

The iKnife works by detecting cancer cells in the smoke left behind by the electrosurgical knife's act of cutting flesh, according toScience Magazine. When the iKnife sucks up the smoke, it pipes the sample to a mass spectrometer capable of almost instantly analyzing the chemistry of the biological tissue to detect the presence of cancer. That translates into near-instant feedback for surgeons rather than having to wait on sample analysis by a pathology lab.

Chemists at the Imperial College London showed that their iKnife could accurately identify both normal and cancerous tissue from 3000 tissue samples taken during 300 cancer patient surgeries, as reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The iKnife could tell the difference between different biological tissues, such as liver or brain, as well as determine if a tumor represented a secondary growth originating from a primary tumor elsewhere.

The iKnife results matched well with pathology lab results in both testing samples and during 91 cancer surgeries. Surgeons received feedback from the iKnife with just a 1- to 3-second delay. The knife's developers eventually envision a display similar to a traffic light that shows a red light to indicate the presence of cancer, a green light for healthy tissue, and a yellow light for an in-between mix.

Zoltan Takats, a chemist at Imperial College London, hit upon the idea of the iKnife when he realized that electrosurgical knives—also known as "flesh vaporizers"—already represented the ideal tools for ionizing tissue in a way that's perfect for mass spectrometry. Such electric wands have been used by surgeons since 1925, according to National Geographic's Only Human blog. 

Whether or not the iKnife actually improves health outcomes for cancer surgery patients remains to be seen. But the knife appears to take yet another step in the evolution of a centuries-old surgical tool that has changed from simple blade to a relatively bloodless cutting instrument—and now to a real-time diagnostic tool. It combines all the promises of technological advancement that have previously applied separately to cancer diagnosiscancer extraction, and treatment.

Photo: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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