Striving to save lives in the operating room

Graham Cooks

05/18/2016 |

Since discovering its scientific wonders as a graduate student in South Africa 50 years ago, R. Graham Cooks has dedicated himself to bringing mass spectrometry to the masses. Now the same technology that he’s perfected to identify pesticides on grocery store vegetables and to detect explosives in luggage could soon be saving lives in the operating room.

In 2014, Cooks and his collaborators at Harvard University announced that a Purdue-designed mass spectrometer to help brain surgeons test and more precisely remove cancerous tissue was successfully used during surgery. Earlier this year, he began collaborating with Dr. Aaron Cohen-Gadol, a surgeon, and Dr. Eyas Hattab, a pathologist, both at Indiana University School of Medicine, in order to establish a database for evaluating different states and grades of brain tumors.

“We’re hoping to get this as a standard of care with mass spectrometry being used during neurosurgery,” says Cooks, the Henry Bohn Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and a newly elected member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Typically during brain surgery, a surgeon must remove tissue and then send samples to a pathology lab for review, a time-consuming and challenging process. “Brain tumor tissue looks very similar to healthy brain tissue, and it is very difficult to determine where the tumor ends and the normal tissue begins,” Cooks says.

“In the brain, a few millimeters of tissue can mean the difference between normal and impaired function. Molecular information should help a surgeon to precisely and comprehensively remove the cancer.”

The new tool sprays a microscopic stream of charged solvent onto the tissue surface to gather information about its molecular makeup, producing a color-coded image that reveals the location, nature and concentration of tumor cells. Within seconds, surgeons can detect residual cancerous tissue that otherwise may have been left behind.

Cooks’ work is especially promising for gliomas — aggressive, fast-growing brain tumors that usually return because surgeons simply can’t locate and remove all the cancerous cells. “These usually have dreadful outcomes, and the fact that there is so often recurrence can be traced back to the fact that margins are really, really difficult,” he says. “I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of enthusiasm for using molecular pathology tools in the operating room.”

– Angie Roberts

Above: Graham Cooks (photo by Vincent Walter)