* Invention could help identify cancerous tissue on the spot
* Combines mass spectrometry and electrosurgery
* Waters Corp has acquired technology
By Krisztina Than
BUDAPEST, July 31 Hungarian scientists are aiming for the first prototype of a new device in two years that will help surgeons distinguish between healthy tissue and tumours in a split-second as they operate and remove cancerous tissue precisely.
Hungarian chemist Zoltan Takats started to work on the technology in 2002 in the United States and from 2004 onwards at the Budapest Semmelweis Medical University in cooperation with the Imperial College London, where he works now.
Last week, U.S.-based Waters Corporation acquired the technology - called Rapid Evaporative Ionization Mass Spectrometry (REIMS) - from Hungarian start-up firm MediMass Ltd.
Waters said in a July 22 statement on its website that the technology could be used to create the "Intelligent Knife" or "iKnife," a device "in the conceptual stages of development that could potentially be used for real-time diagnostics in surgery".
Takats told Reuters he hoped the acquisition would give the project a new momentum, leading to a device prototype within two years and licensing a couple of years after that.
"What we have developed is a device that can tell a surgeon the kind of tissue on which he is operating," Takats said.
The invention combines two existing technologies: mass spectrometry, which is a chemical analytical method, and electrosurgery.
"These two are very, very far from each other, and no one has ever thought that these two could be combined," Takats said.
The technology relies on a modification of the electrosurgical knife, which sends up molecules in the form of smoke as surgeons operate and which Takats and his colleagues direct to the mass spectrometer for testing.
This allows analysis of the sample tissue on the spot in less than a second. Under normal circumstances, surgeons need to send off samples to a laboratory for analysis, and it takes about an hour in Hungary to get the result, Takats said.
"At the moment we are able to produce not only the mass spectrometry information within about half a second, but also analyse it and identify the kind of tumour on which the surgeon is operating," Takats said. "This whole process can be done in 0.7 second at the moment."
MediMass Chief Executive Akos Tallos declined to say how much Waters had paid for the assets, which include patent applications, software, databases and REIMS expertise.
"This transaction will ... give a fresh boost to creating the prototype of the device and then its licensing afterwards," Tallos said. (editing by Jane Baird)