Surgeons may have a new way to smoke out cancer. An experimental surgical knife can help surgeons make sure they've removed all the cancerous tissue. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

Surgeons may have a new way to smoke out cancer.

An experimental device can help surgeons make sure they have removed all the cancerous tissue, doctors reported last week in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Surgeons typically use knives that heat tissue as they cut, creating a sharp-smelling smoke; some of the tissue is sent to a lab for assessment while the patient remains on the operating table. The new knife analyzes the smoke and can instantly signal whether the tissue is cancerous or healthy.

Zoltan Takats of Imperial College London suspected that the smoke might contain important clues. So he designed a “smart” knife linked to a refrigerator-size mass spectrometry device.

The smoke picked up by the smart knife is compared to a library of smoke “signatures” from cancerous and non-cancerous tissues. Information appears on a monitor: Green means the tissue is healthy, red means cancerous and yellow means unidentifiable.

The experimental knife and its accompanying machines cost about $380,000, but scientists said the price would probably drop if the technology is commercialized.

Scientists tested the new knife at three hospitals between 2010 and 2012. Tissue samples were taken from 302 patients to create a database of smoke signatures. That database was used to analyze tumors from 91 patients; the smart knife correctly spotted cancer in every case.

At a demonstration in London last week, doctors used the knife, which resembles a fat white pen, to slice into slabs of pig’s liver. Within minutes, the room was filled with an acrid smoke similar to the fumes produced during surgery on a human patient.

Takats said that the knife would eventually be submitted for regulatory approval but that more studies were planned. He said the knife could also be used for identifying tissues with bad blood supply and identifying the types of bacteria present.

— Associated Press