Illinois engineer’s invention hopes to help detect cancer earlier

CHICAGO — Imagine being diagnosed with cancer in just minutes. That’s exactly what a University of Illinois engineer has done with a diagnostic tool he wants doctors’ offices and hospitals to have on the counter.

“The sensor works a bit like a microscope,” said engineer Dr Brian Cunningham.

It’s portable and inexpensive with the tabletop device built around $7,000 in parts.

“The new technology we have developed is a very sensitive way to detect and count individual molecules,” said Dr Cunningham.

They’re not just looking for molecules — Dr. Cunningham and his team at the Cancer Center in Illinois are looking for fragments of tumor cells. With just a few drops of blood, their Phototonic Resonator Absorption Microscope (PRAM) uses special crystals to spot tiny biomarkers early.

The invention is designed to identify multiple forms of cancer.

“We have projects where we’re using it in prostate cancer and breast cancer and the recently published work is also relevant to liver cancer.” said Dr. Cunningham.

Current diagnostic tests require a large volume of blood or tissue samples taken during a biopsy. PRAM can detect cancer with a smaller sample size and higher sensitivity.

“We only need a handful of the molecules we’re looking to detect to get a positive result,” Dr Cunningham said.

Technology can also help determine if chemotherapy is working.

“If they see that the treatment is working, this type of method may be more sensitive than actually looking at the tumor imaging to see if the tumor has shrunk, you can actually see these things earlier by measuring molecules in the blood” , said Dr. Cunningham. .

He hopes to distribute his invention in medical offices and hospitals.

“They would like to know the answer to some of these things before patients leave them,” Dr Cunningham said. “That way they can put them on chemotherapy or give them an answer right away rather than waiting days or weeks.”

Dr Cunningham has filed patent applications on the technology and hopes to work with a bigger company to bring the tool to market.