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.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
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.