UT ‘Cancer Pen’ developer awarded MacArthur Foundation Fellowship of $625,000

Catherine Vincent

For the first time in this century, a UT Austin faculty member, chemistry assistant professor Livia Eberlin, has won the prestigious, five-year MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Each recipient is awarded $625,000, which they can spend however they wish. It is also known as the MacArthur “genius” grant. 

The award was presented to Eberlin at 11 a.m. Thursday for creative accomplishment in her career using mass spectrometry imaging to diagnosis cancer. Seven other UT faculty members have received this award, the most recent being integrative biology professor David Hillis and history professor Jacqueline Jones in 1999. 

“When I got the call, I was completely shocked and surprised,” Eberlin said. “It was hard to believe … All I could say was, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ It was so overwhelming.”

Mass spectrometry, Eberlin said, is an analytical technique that identifies what molecules are in a sample by measuring their mass-to-charge ratios.

Eberlin is most well-known for developing the MasSpec Pen, also known as the “Cancer Pen,” which uses mass spectrometry to diagnose cancer. The pen is a handheld device that Eberlin has been developing in her lab since she started at UT three years ago. She said it is used by simply touching the device to potentially cancerous tissue. 

“Through an automated process of chemical and statistical analysis, we are able to provide a predictive diagnosis … if that tissue is cancerous or normal,” Eberlin said. “We envision it to be very useful in clinical applications, especially in the operating room, when determining cancer boundaries (is) very important.”

According to Science Translational Medicine, the pen only needs to physically contact the tissue for three seconds before it can identify its health.

“Her (Eberlin’s) world-changing research places her at the vanguard of a worldwide effort to fight cancer,” said UT President Gregory Fenves on Twitter. 

Eberlin said she plans on continuing moving forward with her research and the development of the MasSpec Pen.

“We’ve been testing some (pens) in the clinic and acquiring as many clinical samples as we can to validate our masses,” Eberlin said. “We’re really excited about that … We’re pushing to translate the technology to the clinic to see what the value is for patient care.”