Updated on 19 July 2013
The iKnife is based on electrosurgery and uses an electrical current to rapidly heat tissue, cutting through it while minimizing blood loss. Image source: Imperial College London
Singapore: Scientists have developed an 'intelligent knife' that can tell surgeons immediately whether the tissue they are cutting is cancerous or not. In the first study to test the invention in the operating theater, the 'iKnife' diagnosed tissue samples from 91 patients with 100 percent accuracy, instantly providing information that normally takes up to half an hour to reveal using laboratory tests.
The findings, by researchers at Imperial College London, are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Imperial Biomedical Research Centre, the European Research Council and the Hungarian National Office for Research and Technology.
In cancers involving solid tumors, removal of the cancer in surgery is generally the best hope for treatment. The surgeon normally takes out the tumor with a margin of healthy tissue. However, it is often impossible to tell by sight which tissue is cancerous. One in five breast cancer patients who have surgery require a second operation to fully remove the cancer. In cases of uncertainty, the removed tissue is sent to a lab for examination while the patient remains under general anesthetic.
The iKnife is based on electrosurgery, a technology invented in the 1920s that is commonly used today. Electrosurgical knives use an electrical current to rapidly heat tissue, cutting through it while minimizing blood loss. In doing so, they vaporize the tissue, creating smoke that is normally sucked away by extraction systems.
The inventor of the iKnife, Dr Zoltan Takats of Imperial College London, realized that this smoke would be a rich source of biological information. To create the iKnife, he connected an electrosurgical knife to a mass spectrometer, an analytical instrument used to identify what chemicals are present in a sample. Different types of cell produce thousands of metabolites in different concentrations, so the profile of chemicals in a biological sample can reveal information about the state of that tissue.