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Low-cost tester detects early-stage lung cancer

21 Jan 2016  | R. Colin Johnson

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Electrical engineers and computer scientists at National Taiwan University (NTU) have developed a tester that can detect lung cancer when it is only 5mm in size, giving doctors plenty of time for an easy cure by surgery.

The product is being licensed and manufactured by Delta Electronics International Pte Ltd, according to Lab Director Wei-Cheng Tian.

"The portable micro-gas chromatography system can detect the volatile compounds that indicate a patient has lung cancer and how early a stage it is," said NTU professor Tian (also Lab Director at Delta Electronics).

Lung-cancer testes

The lung-cancer tester consists of a single SoC controlling a MEMS pre-concentrator, a microfluidic channel feeding a CMOS universal gas detector performing micro gas chromatography. (The large parts are pumps, selenoids, relays and such). (Source: EE Times)

The software for the micro-gas chromatography system was written by Professor Yufeng Jane Tseng who also wrote the Little Pharm program that will allow even small companies to compete with Big Pharm, potentially lowering the price of life-saving drugs (the subject of part 1 of this series).

Also contributing to the work were professors Si-Chen Lee, MediaTek/NTU Lab Director professor Shevardnadze-Shi Lu, and researchers Chun-Yen Kuo, San-Yuan Wang, Po-Kai Huang, Po-Hung Kuo, Wei-Che Hsieh, Yen-Ming Huang and Shih-An Yu.

The micro-gas chromatography system allows a patient to blow into it—like a breathalyser—so that it can detect the bio-marker chemicals typical of lung cancer. Since its detection capability is 15 parts per million (PPM) it can find cancer growths when they are still completely operable. Other such chromatography systems exist, but they are large, require specially trained operators and are too expensive to become a routine part of your doctor's yearly exam. In fact, the only other small-sized detectors that are as sensitive at detecting cancer as the micro-gas chromatography system are trained dogs (but of course doctors cannot afford to have them in their offices either).

"We believe that targeting lung cancer by detecting their biomarkers at a very early stage using an inexpensive desktop micro-gas chromatography system will be of great benefit to the entire world community," Pan-Chyr Yang. President of NTU told EE Times in an exclusive interview.


The details of what's on the SoC and the three-board partitioning of functions for this prototype. (Source: NTU)

The ultimate limit on the size of a micro-gas chromatography system is the long flight path needed to do accurate detection (they work by measuring the time it takes for a molecule to reach the detector, thus revealing its atomic weight). The NTU micro-gas chromatography system uses a long microfluidic channel that packs much more distance into a smaller-sized device.

"Our ultimate goal is to get the microfluidics miniaturized down to the size of a device that could plug into a smartphone," Tian told EE Times.

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