2/2017

Electronic nose ‘smells’ cancer

To remove all traces of a tumour, cancer surgeons need to be able to determine the boundary between malignant and healthy tissue during an operation. Anton Kontunen has developed a method whereby an electronic nose detects cancerous tissue by analysing the smoke produced during electrosurgery.

Anton Kontunen

 

The master’s thesis of Anton Kontunen represents an important step in the detection of cancerous tissue using an electronic nose.

 

When surgeons need to know precisely where a tumour begins and ends, they send a frozen tissue sample for histopathological analysis. It takes about 20 minutes to analyse the sample, all the while the surgeons and nurses wait and the patient remains under general anaesthesia. Several samples may have to be cut out and analysed during surgery. Soon this clinically valuable information may be available in real time: Anton Kontunen has developed an intraoperative tissue analysis method for his master’s thesis in the fields of biomeasurements and bioimaging.

“The new method speeds up surgery, saves costs and is patient-friendly,” lists Kontunen.

Cancer surgeries are performed using a so-called diathermy knife that uses electric current to simultaneously cut and coagulate tissue to prevent bleeding.

“Surgical diathermy causes the tissue cells to vaporize. The resulting stream of smoke is drawn into a tube and fed into a machine that determines whether the tissue is cancerous or not,” says Kontunen.

Biomarkers reveal cancerous tissue

Anton Kontunen developed and built the instruments for his MSc research together with Markus Karjalainen, who is working towards his doctoral degree at TUT. The device he developed utilises a differential ion mobility spectrometer, a type of ‘electronic nose’, which detects cancer biomarkers from the smoke that is released from tissue during electrosurgery.

“Previous research has shown that compared with normal cells, cancer cells contain elevated levels of, for example, phospholipids. As the electronic nose picks up these phospholipids, it can tell the difference between tumours and healthy tissue,” says Kontunen.

Kontunen performed a series of tests to determine how accurately the method can identify different types of pig tissue. The success rate was 95 per cent.

“In addition, I conducted a pilot study to test the method on human brain tissue in collaboration with FIMLAB Laboratories. The method could distinguish between benign meningiomas and malignant glioblastomas with 85 per cent accuracy. The results have attracted a great deal of interest among brain surgeons in Tampere University Hospital.”

Next step: operating rooms

Kontunen became intrigued with cancer detection methods soon after enrolling at TUT and wrote his bachelor’s thesis on the technologies for ‘sniffing out’ cancer.

“The financier of my research, Associate Professor of Surgery Niku Oksala, and MD, PhD Antti Roine, who wrote his dissertation on the detection of prostate cancer, were the masterminds behind my research idea and provided invaluable support throughout the process,” Kontunen says.

Kontunen conducted his MSc research within the Sensor Technology and Biomeasurements Group (STB), which is headed by Professor Jukka Lekkala in the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences and Engineering at TUT.

“We have collaborated with Niku Oksala in the area of measurement technologies for several years. Cross-disciplinary research projects open up whole new avenues for the development of future innovations, and our work continues within the new Tampere3 community being built by Tampere University of Technology, the University of Tampere and Tampere University of Applied Sciences,” says Lekkala.

“The master’s thesis of Anton Kontunen represents an important step in the detection of cancerous tissue using an electronic nose. His method holds considerable promise for improving the quality of cancer surgery,” Lekkala continues.

Anton Kontunen continues his research with financial support from the South Savo Regional Fund operating under the Finnish Cultural Foundation. He is testing the accuracy of his method in distinguishing between different benign and malignant tumours. A patent for the method is currently pending. His next goal is to complete a doctoral dissertation – and put his method to the test in actual operating rooms in Finland and abroad.

“We’re hoping to launch a pilot study in operating rooms before the end of this year,” says Kontunen.

Text: Sanna Kähkönen
Photo: Virpi Andersin

 
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