Forget the Swiss Army Knife, here comes the iKnife
Technology that can pinpoint cancer cells looks like it has many other applications, including detecting rogue horse meat, says one of its inventors
An intelligent knife used to pinpoint cancer cells in operations may be enlisted to detect horse meat being passed off as beef.
The British-based team behind the iKnife is in talks with food safety authorities about how the technology could prevent a repeat of last year's adulterated meat scandal in Europe.
"We already know that the technology works," said team member Professor Jeremy Nicholson, who was in Hong Kong to attend a medical conference.
"If it can tell a very small biochemical difference between a primary or secondary tumour, it should be easier telling the difference between horse meat and beef," said Nicholson, head of the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London.
The university's Hungarian biochemist Zoltan Takats is credited with inventing the knife. It works by analysing the smoke created by an electrosurgery knife - which cuts through tissue using a high-frequency current - and can tell in seconds whether a sample is malignant or healthy.
Currently, operations are halted for about 30 minutes while tissue samples are sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Nicholson said he was confident that the iKnife would start being used during operations later this year, following clinical trials.
He said patients suffering from glioma, a type of brain cancer, would be on top of their recruiting list for the trials.
"For brain tumours, defining the extent of the tumour is very difficult as the brain looks the same," Nicholson said. "Deciding just by eye is quite difficult, and nobody wants to cut away too much of the brain."
He added that glioma tumours tend to recur after just three months, so it would not take long to discover the iKnife's efficiency. Trials on lung and breast tumours would follow.
"Usually a recurring cancer is very, very bad and the patient is likely to die," he said. "So if you cut more accurately and get rid of all the cancer in the first round, it is going to save lives."
Nicholson said the new technology would also cut costs and the manpower required to treat cancer patients because they would need fewer treatments.
Nicholson said the iKnife might also be used to analyse the components of drinks, urine or blood in seconds, and could even tell the difference between carbon 12 and carbon 13 - two types of atoms with the same chemical element.
"Imagine it being turned into a micro-searching device and used for testing drinks, urine or plasma, for example. The result would be known in a few seconds," he said. "There is a huge market for the technology. Surgery is probably only a small part of the market."