Scientists believe the hi-tech device will revolutionise cancer treatment by identifying malignant tissue in an instant.
An “intelligent” knife that knows when it is cutting through cancerous tissue is being tested in three London hospitals.
Experts believe the wand-like device, the first of its kind in the world, will revolutionise cancer treatment by removing uncertainty from surgery.
The device – called the iKnife – is a hi-tech form of electric scalpel, a tool routinely used by surgeons that uses electricity to sear through membranes and internal organs.
But the iKnife is also able to indicate exactly where the cancerous tissue is, and when it has all been removed.
As the iKnife cuts, smoke from the burned tissue is pumped through a tube into a mass spectrometer, a machine that uses magnetism to produce a chemical “fingerprint” of the atoms fed into it and an operating surgeon can learn almost instantly if a suspicious growth is cancerous or benign.
The iKnife’s inventor, Dr Zoltan Takats, from Imperial College London, who published the results of the study in the journal Science Translational Medicine, said the knife could change operating procedure.
Of the present system, he said: “A tissue sample is removed from the patient and sent to the histology lab for analysis.
“But even in vast hospitals it can take 10 to 30 minutes – there are also reliability issues – the histology team are in an extreme rush and having to do things as fast as possible.
“We can give feedback to the surgeon in some cases in less than a second. This could be a real game-changer for tumour resection surgery.”
Dr Takats, who came up with the idea of the iKnife while working at Semnelweiss University in Hungary, said the device could allow surgeons to carry out operations that might normally be considered too risky.
“In principle, this approach could push the line of what is operable a little bit further down the road,” he said.
“Such cases that today are just opened and closed back up may now fall into the operable category.
“Often the problem is, if there is an invasive but still localised tumour, no-one has the courage to really go after it.”