When surgeon Steven Gitelis describes the hybrid plasma scalpel, he uses a comparison almost everyone can understand: “This device is like a lightsaber.”

Well, you probably won’t see Luke Skywalker swinging one anytime soon, but the scalpel’s breakthrough technology could dramatically change surgery for pancreatic, head and neck, liver, and soft tissue cancers. Surgeons typically operate on cancer patients with either a metal scalpel or a device called a bovie, which uses a high degree of heat to cauterize a wound. But those methods are far from perfect: The scalpel causes substantial blood loss, and the bovie kills a lot of healthy tissue. “And when normal tissue dies, you have all sorts of wound complications—the wound won’t heal, there’s nerve damage. It can be pretty terrible,” says Gitelis, vice chairman of orthopedic surgery with Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, one of just three U.S. hospitals that use the plasma scalpel, which was developed by US Medical Innovations. Gitelis is the only surgeon who has used the new device to remove sarcomas—cancers of the musculoskeletal system.

Inside the handle of the six-inch plasma scalpel—which, alas, looks like a boring electric toothbrush—a high-frequency current charges argon (an inert gas). That, in turn, generates a beam of ions. This beam simultaneously cuts through tissue and cauterizes the wound, dramatically reducing blood loss. Transfusion rates in surgeries using the plasma scalpel are about a quarter of what they are in orthopedic procedures using traditional methods, according to USMI. The plasma beam also kills certain cancerous cells in the liver and pancreas, as well as those related to skin and soft tissue sarcomas. This means that it not only cuts out tumors but also might prevent them from returning because it reduces the chance that malignant cells are left behind. 

Gitelis has used the device in almost 50 operations over the last nine months. He’s convinced it will eventually become the industry standard. “It’s absolutely revolutionary,” he says.