iKnife: The smartest weapon against cancer

London, July 17, 2013. ICL staffer demonstrates the iKnife. Credit: Kieron Monks/MWN
The iKnife can detect whether the tissue it is cutting is cancerous.
Credit: Kieron Monks/MWN

The surgery fills with acrid smoke as the electronic knife sears lines into the patient. The smoke is captured and passes through a tube into a vending machine-sized gadget on wheels. After a few moments of analysis it responds: “Green, 92 percent healthy.”

The “patient” in this case is low quality pork, as medical ethics would not allow a human subject for this live demonstration of the iKnife. The surgical “intelligent knife” represents a potentially transformative breakthrough in the battle against cancer. “It can change the world,” says professor Jeremy Nicholson, head of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London (ICL), where the device was developed.

Using a process called Rapid Evaporative Ionization Mass Spectometry, the iKnife tells surgeons in real time whether the tissue they are cutting is cancerous. A trial of 91 patients recently concluded with 100 percent accuracy, and detection is sensitive enough to detect tumors 1/1000th the size of a pinhead.

While surgery is the leading treatment for the world’s biggest killer, it relies on crude methods. Surgeons must cut away high volumes of healthy tissue as an error margin. Worse still, they often miss cancerous tissue that causes the disease to recur even more dangerously.

The new gadget would reduce those recurrences and open up new opportunities, its developers say. “There would be more chance to operate on high-risk patients and shift the border between operable and inoperable,” the iKnife inventor and ICL surgeon Dr. Zoltan Takats told Metro.

The same technology could be used to identify other dangerous features such as blood disease or bacteria, and even to distinguish horsemeat from beef.

The iKnife is in its final trial and product design stages, following successful tests in Hungary, Germany and the U.K., with one challenge to reduce a unit price of around £250,000. ICL expect it to enter regular use “within a few years.”



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