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Tiny sensor may lead to home cancer detection kits

A University of Missouri engineering professor is developing a liquid sensor smaller than a human hair to detect cancer instantly using acoustic resonance.

Prof. Jae Kwon (left) is developing a tiny liquid sensor to detect cancer almost instantly. University of Missouri

An engineering professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia is developing an acoustic resonant sensor smaller than a human hair to test bodily fluids for a variety of diseases, including breast and prostate cancers.

The real-time sensor uses micro- and nano-electromechanical systems (M/NEMS) to detect diseases in bodily fluids, and can be integrated with small circuits instead of bulky data-reading and analyzing equipment.

Jae Kwon, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, won a $400,000, five-year National Science Foundation Career Award in January of 2009 to continue his sensor research.

"Many disease-related substances in liquids are not easily tracked," Kwon said. "In a liquid environment, most sensors experience a significant loss of signal quality, but by using highly sensitive, low-signal-loss acoustic resonant sensors in a liquid, these substances can be effectively and quickly detected--a brand-new concept that will result in a noninvasive approach for breast cancer detection."

Kwon tells me by e-mail that the sensor has already been proven effective in vitro, targeting disease substances and sensing tiny mass changes on the device instantly. He hopes it will be integrated into a simple home kit whose speed could produce not only real-time results, but less anxiety than current biopsies, where it can take several days or weeks to get results.