Just as home tests revolutionized the detection of pregnancy, a tiny sensor being developed at the University of Missouri (MU) could bring the benefits of home testing to the diagnosis a variety of diseases, including breast and prostate cancers. The sensor, known as an acoustic resonant sensor, is smaller than a human hair and could one day be used in home testing kits for the easy, rapid and accurate diagnosis of a range of diseases.

The real-time, special acoustic resonant sensor being developed by Jae Kwon, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at MU, uses micro/nanoelectromechanical systems (M/NEMS) to directly detect diseases in body fluids. Since the M/NEMS are tiny devices smaller than the diameter of a human hair and the sensor doesn’t require bulky data reading or analyzing equipment they can be integrated with equally small circuits, creating the potential for small stand-alone disease-screening systems.

“Many disease-related substances in liquids are not easily tracked,” said Kwon, “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.”

As an added benefit Kwon’s sensor also produces rapid, almost immediate results that could reduce patient anxiety often felt after waiting for other detection methods, such as biopsies, which can take several days or weeks before results are known.

“Our ultimate goal is to produce a device that will simply and quickly diagnose multiple specific diseases, and eventually be used to create ‘point of care’ systems, which are services provided to patients at their bedsides,” Kwon said.

Kwon believes the sensor has strong commercial potential as part of simple home kits for the easy, fast and accurate diagnosis of a range of diseases and he was awarded a US$400,000, five year National Science Foundation CAREER Award to continue his efforts to develop the sensor.