Inventor Spotlight: Grey’s Anatomy features a real-life UT invention

Kevin Dural

In case you missed last week’s new episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the fictional doctors of Seattle Grace Hospital praised a very real ground-breaking invention from UT researchers.   

Last year, a team including UT chemistry assistant professor Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, along with other UT researchers and engineers, developed a handheld device called the MasSpec Pen that can identify cancerous cells within seconds.

The device uses a line of technology known as mass spectrometry. Mass spectrometry is a broad term, Eberlin said, but generally, mass spectrometric analysis utilizes mass and charge to characterize molecules. Specifically, the MasSpec Pen can analyze living tissue samples. Eberlin said an advantage of the MasSpec Pen is its ability to analyze the presence of cancer in a nondestructive, swift manner.

“Imagine a situation where a surgeon is trying to remove cancerous cells and they are unsure if they fully removed the cancer or not,” Eberlin said. “The pen provides automated feedback to determine whether a tissue is normal or cancerous.”

The device was recently featured on the February 8 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” a medical drama TV show. In the show’s fictional universe, the MasSpec Pen is character Dr. Richard Webber’s proposal for the Grey Sloan Surgical Innovation Contest. The contest pits the show’s doctors against each other to see who can develop the most innovative project proposal.

With the episode garnering upwards of 7 million viewers, Eberlin said it was very exciting that the writers of Grey’s Anatomy chose to showcase her laboratory’s technology on the show. She added that it was delightful that the show’s producers thought that general public would also be as excited as she was for the potential use of this technology in a clinical setting. 

“For me, this reinforced our vision that what we developed has the potential to significantly impact and improve human health, and hopefully change the lives of millions of people that are affected by cancer,” she said. “It was great to know that the writers agreed with this vision.”

What viewers may not know, however, is that the MasSpec Pen is not just a fictional creation for a TV show. The invention is currently patent-pending, awaiting regulatory certifications before it can be utilized in clinics and hospitals, Eberlin said.

“It is very rewarding to know that the MasSpec Pen is real, works and has so much potential for clinical applications,” she said. “The attention also brings an even stronger sense of responsibility and urgency to further refine, test and validate the technology for clinical use.”

Eberlin added that the team is continuously looking for partnerships with medical device and mass spectrometry companies to keep moving the development and commercialization process forward. The end goal, she said, is to have the MasSpec Pen available to every cancer surgeon across the globe.

As for what attracts her to such laboratory research, Eberlin said that she loves developing new tools with immediate application.

“As much as I love understanding processes and typical scientific research, I have always had this passion towards developing technology with the potential for immediate clinical impact,” she said. “Everything we work on in this laboratory is focused on need, not just because we are curious.”

Eberlin said that her desire for research emerged early in her undergraduate career at the State University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil. Involved in research as a freshman, she said she quickly picked up on technologies and techniques that would serve as the basis for the revolutionary devices she and her laboratory are developing today.

“Mass spectrometry was really exciting to me,” she added. “The undergraduate years are the time to explore and find something you see yourself doing for a long time.”

Eberlin has received several awards over her career, including the Nobel Laureate Signature Award from the American Chemical Society and L’Oreal for Women in Science Fellowship. In addition, she was featured in the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in science and health care. Most recently, the MasSpec Pen was named a finalist for an interactive innovation award at SXSW.

Eberlin said that these awards validate and provide reassurance to scientists that the field is going in the right direction. Having the MasSpec Pen featured on an Emmy Award-winning television show highlights the cultural relevance of her laboratory’s work.

“It’s not a pen, it’s a wand,” said “Grey’s Anatomy” character Maggie Pierce, referring to the MasSpec Pen proposal. “It’s a magic wand.”