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CoE researchers receive funding for sensitive cancer detection devices

John Viator, an assistant biological engineering professor, adjusts the flow chamber of his tabletop cancer detector. Viator plans to use a $232,000 private grant to make his device sensitive enough to detect a single melanoma cell. Photo by Vicki Hodder

Two MU College of Engineering researchers working on tabletop cancer detection devices will receive $470,000 from a private foundation dedicated to accelerating the development of new medical technologies.

Xudong Fan and John Viator, both assistant biological engineering professors, have each won grants from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, a Florida–based not–for–profit foundation that supports biomedical engineering research.

Fan will receive $238,000 to build a prototype device capable of rapidly detecting cancer molecules using a single, small blood sample. Viator will receive $232,000 to refine a laser device that works with sound waves to detect melanoma, a deadly skin cancer. The Coulter Foundation grants, which start Aug. 1, run for two years.

Both researchers aim to harness techniques that would provide accurate analyses far more quickly than current technology allows.

“Within one doctor’s visit, you could get results,” said Fan of the device he hopes to finish designing within the next two years. “You wouldn’t have to send a sample to a pathologist’s office and wait.”

Those results would include tests for a number of proteins or DNA molecules that if found together indicate cancer, Fan said. His early cancer detection device will incorporate his technique for analyzing blood samples by inundating them with laser light as they repeatedly circle through an array of glass rings.

Fan is working with Paul Dale, an associate professor of clinical surgery, Huidong Shi and Charles W. Caldwell, both professors of pathology and anatomical science, and Shubhra Gangopadhyay, an electrical and computer engineering professor, to build a device small and quick enough for everyday clinical practice.

Viator’s cancer detector device also is designed for rapid testing in a clinical setting. His photoacoustic mechanism bombards blood samples with laser light that sparks sound waves if it runs into as few as 30 melanoma cells.

Working with Dale, Jon Dyer, an assistant professor of dermatology and child health, Scott Holan, an assistant professor of statistics, and Ryan M. Weight, a biological engineering graduate student, Viator is striving to make his device sensitive enough to detect a single melanoma cell.

“The Coulter Foundation award will help us get our preliminary device to a working, feasible clinical device,” Viator said.

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