More than 75 percent of cancer patients in developing countries discover their cancer in a late stage, according to Dr. Seung Kim, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.
"In the U.S. if we need to do a blood test, we have tools to detect diseases. We can do that because we have resources; however, in developing countries, that's not the case," he said. "If I can develop a low-cost system that's easy to use and easy to maintain, and we can ship it out to developing countries, I believe they can find a good use for it."
He's hoping the detection of major diseases ranging from cancer to heart disease will one day be as simple as the in-home blood test diabetics use to detect low blood sugar.
Kim says through the power of his research, not only will lives be saved in the U.S. and abroad, but the economic cost of disease will one day be mitigated.
The work in his lab, located in Baylor's BRIC, is focused on early detection. "The impact will be significant," said Kim. "Almost 100 percent of patients diagnosed with prostate cancer at stage one will survive for more than five years. When they find the prostate cancer at stage four, the five-year survival rate drops down to 29 percent," he said, adding the same holds true for many cancers. "People are dying because they don't find the disease at an early stage."
Kim is developing a device that is highly sensitive and will be able to detect specific biomolecules, or biomarkers, in blood. "Patients with certain diseases have an elevated concentration of biomarkers, so we can determine the disease," he said.
The sensor will also be highly selective in order to detect a wide range of diseases and to ensure an accurate positive diagnosis, signaling the need to see a doctor.
He has established the concept. Now he's working to demonstrate and optimize the design by refining the sensitivity of the biosensor that reads the blood. It's an intricate process, dealing with the micron level.
The sensitivity needed requires Kim to work in a cleanroom because even the smallest amount of dust could affect his research. A cleanroom has a controlled level of contamination limited by the number of particles in that space as well as the specified particle size.
Kim collaborates with Dr. Jay Kim at Texas Tech, a researcher and friend he met several years ago. "I'm focusing on developing the sensor part-how to detect signals due to the existence of certain biomarkers, and he's working with manipulating the fluid" said Kim.
He anticipates the device is something patients would be able to use on a monthly basis. "Eventually I'm envisioning this will be an affordable consumer product so people can have it at home and perform the test by themselves," he said.
The National Science Foundation also sees the value in Kim's work. He's the recipient of a $620,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. The CAREER Program is one of the NSF's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their organization.
Junior Caitlyn Breaux assists in Kim's lab as many as five days a week. "What interests me the most about our group's research is seeing ideas and processes in writing that may have never been used or done before come to fruition. Even better, the fact that all the things we do, from the smallest task to major projects, are toward an ultimate goal of making the diagnosis of diseases and cancers easier and cheaper," she said.
"The people I have been given the opportunity to work with have motivated me to grow as a student and researcher. I hope that someday I will be able to have such a positive influence for someone else," added Breaux.