Novel endoscopy tool opens new doors for pancreatic cancer treatment


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new endoscopy tool, created in the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering, could one day provide a more effective, minimally invasive treatment for pancreatic tumors.

On average, only about 20% of pancreatic cancer patients are eligible for a surgical removal of the tumor, the currently most-effective treatment option. The location of the pancreas in the abdomen and the difficulty to detect the disease make it one of the most difficult to treat. 

In an attempt to change that prognosis, Brad Hanks, a doctoral student studying mechanical engineering, created a new type of electrode to be used in endoscopic radiofrequency ablation (RFA) procedures. His work will be presented at the upcoming 2019 Design of Medical Devices Conference in Minneapolis, MN.

A minimally invasive procedure, RFA is conducted by inserting an electrode into the abdomen and administering high-frequency energy that heats the tumor and as a result, neutralizes the cancer cells. While the RFA treatment itself is well-established and effective, the current endoscopic tools that exist to perform this procedure are “one size fits all,” rather than customized to each tumor.

A standard RFA electrode produces an elliptical ablation zone, while most tumors are approximately spherical. Since the RFA treatment zone doesn’t usually match the shape of the tumor, the untreated remnants can continue the spread of the disease.

“It’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Hanks said. “Without a surgical tool to match the shape of the tumor, the effectiveness of the treatment can be severely limited.”

However, by harnessing finite element analysis and evolutionary algorithms, he designed an electrode that deploys, spreading electrode “fingers” that could produce an ablation zone that is better matched to a specific tumor’s shape.

Though the electrode itself may not be able to completely eradicate the tumor, the method could provide additional benefits to on-going treatment.

Currently, gold beads called fiducials are often inserted in another procedure to provide guidance for radiation treatments. Marking the edges of the tumor through x-rays, the fiducials provide a clearer outline to for targeting and eradicating the tumor. The custom electrode, designed to detach and stay in the tumor, could provide a similar purpose, according to Hanks.

In collaboration with Matthew Moyer, a physician at the Penn State Hershey Medical Cancer, Hanks became interested in the concept of creating innovative endoscopic tools.

“I seriously considered becoming a doctor while I was earning my bachelor’s degree,” he said. “But I also like building and designing aspect of engineering – being able to blend the two fields is so exciting to me.”

Moyer approached the researchers with the initial idea to create more effective endoscopy tools and he presented the idea of the electrode as a fiducial substitute.

The product is currently being refined and tested at Actuated Medical, Inc., a company based in Bellefonte, Pa. that develops next-generation FDA-compliant medical devices.

Mary Frecker, professor of mechanical engineering and Hanks’ advisor, said, “We are very pleased to partner with Actuated Medical, Inc. to develop this device.  Their expertise in manufacturing of medical devices is a great compliment to the modeling and optimization work that we are developing at Penn State.”

“We help support the company with simulations and experiments and having a partner in industry has been a great experience,” Hanks said. “I’m hopeful that patients will one day be able to benefit.”

There is an ongoing partnership with Penn State and Actuated Medical in the development of the device.

This project was initially funded by a National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation grant. The researchers later partnered with Actuated Medical on a Small Business Innovation Research grant to begin testing.


Share this story:

facebook linked in twitter email


Erin Cassidy Hendrick

“The day we are able provide truly personalized care for these cancers is not so far away.”
—Brad Hanks, mechanical engineering doctoral student



With more than 60 faculty members, 330 graduate students, and 800 undergraduate students, the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering embraces a culture that welcomes individuals with a diversity of backgrounds and expertise. Our faculty and students are innovating today what will impact tomorrow’s solutions to meeting our energy needs, homeland security, biomedical devices, and transportation systems. We offer B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering as well as resident (M.S., Ph.D.) and online (M.S.) graduate degrees in mechanical engineering. See how we’re inspiring change and impacting tomorrow at

Department of Mechanical Engineering

137 Reber Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4400

Phone: 814-865-2519