There's little room for error when it comes to removing brain tumours, which is why a new 'smart scalpel' developed by a researcher in Belgium is looking so promising: it enables surgeons to distinguish between cancerous and healthy tissue in the brain in a matter of seconds.

It's not actually a scalpel as such: it's more of a pen-style scanner, with a spherical tip less than 1 millimetre across. By passing the device across the surface of the brain, doctors can detect exactly where the tumour is and remove it more accurately. So far, it's only been tested on artificial tumours and brain tissue from pigs, but the results are impressive enough to suggest that it could be adapted for use on humans too.

Right now, neurosurgeons are relying on very close observations and tissue manipulation tools, both of which have their own limitations.

"Although imaging techniques such as an MRI and an ultrasound locate a tumour accurately before the surgery, during the cranial opening and throughout the surgical procedure there are many factors that can lead to the loss of this position, so the resection (the removing of the tumour) depends on the experience, as well as the senses of sight and touch of the surgeon," said the scalpel's inventor, David Oliva Uribe from Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).

Uribe has been working on the device for six years, and says the prototype has reached the final stages of development. 

smart-scalpel-2The prototype 'scalpel'. Credit: Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Uribe says that results from the scanner can be obtained in less than half a second, which can be crucial in life-threatening situations. It's designed to be used at the early stages of a tumour's life - when the cancerous tissue can look very similar to normal tissue - and in the future, it could be miniaturised to be used in other areas of the body too.

The sensor technology could also be adapted for use with robot-assisted surgeries, according to Uribe, alongside other types of tools.

While this particular invention looks pretty awesome, it's not the first time we've heard of a device of this kind. As Xuan Pham from LabRoots reports, researchers at Imperial College in London in the UK had previously developed an 'iKnife' device, which relies on the smoke produced as tissue is cut and vaporised.

"In a publication that detailed the iKnife's design, the research team reported a 100 percent success rate in diagnosing cancerous tissues [in] 91 patients," says Pham.

Just as we're yet to see the iKnife revolutionise the industry, according to Uribe, his new smart scalpel also requires "significant further development" before it's ready for widespread use.

So it could be some time before we see 'smart scalpels' replace the old-fashioned kind in the operating theatre, but hopefully we're looking at a sign of better things to come.